Barack Obama is inheriting Ag policies and food safety policies that have been the subject of huge debates for years, and the FDA has just pulled off a whopper of a policy reversal to add to the mix. They’re following the lead of other Bush regulatory bodies, which are scrambling to codify old policies in the Lame Duck microseconds that remain before the President-elect takes office, but FDA’s stealth reversal stands to permanently alter the US foodchain and profoundly endanger public health.

On November 25, with no public statement, FDA entered a notice into the Federal Register that now allows the widespread "off label" usage of cephalosporin antibiotics in all food animals, reversing their previous policy on this. Cephalosporins are approved for use in respiratory illness in cattle and swine; "off label" usage means other food animals can be dosed with the drug for other ilnnesses, as well as given the drugs as a routine prophylactic measure–healthy animals routinely given drugs, rather than being treated because they are ill. It’s a profit-protection approach to raising food animals, since producers aren’t supposed to sell meat from sick animals. The documented danger: Dosing food animals with powerful antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance in humans, as well as create "superbugs" that are fatal to humans.

The reversal: on July 3, FDA banned the "off label" use of cephalosporins in food animals (including cattle, swine, chickens, and turkeys) due to "a public health risk." FDA’s July statement: Given the importance of the cephalosporin class of drugs for treating disease in humans, FDA believes that preserving the effectiveness of such drugs is critical. Therefore, FDA believes it is necessary to take action to limit the extent of cephalosporins in food-producing animals [because] it contributes to the emergence of resistant variants or pathogens.

Key points here: FDA is further demonstrating its ineptitude as a regulatory body, as well as endangering public health. The position reversal is due to intensive lobbying by Big Ag, which has only profit as a motive, rather than public health. And the cephalosporin reversal is exact to FDA’s recent reversal on melamine contamination. FDA had previously said no melamine was safe in foods ingested by infants, but after melamine was discovered in infant formula produced in the US, FDA now says it is safe for infants to ingest melamine.

Worse, overuse of cephalosporins has been implicated in the creation of a new strain of Clostridium difficile, NAP1, a "superbug" that is rapidly gaining traction in human populations. C. diff has long been a common, usually benign bug associated with easily treated diarrhea. But overuse of antibiotics has allowed the germ to develop resistance in creating a toxic new type that stumps traditional treatment. NAP1 produces about 20 times the toxins of ordinary strains of C. diff, and can cause severe, repeated diarrhea that resists all but the most powerful drugs. In worst cases, C. diff infection can destroy the colon and lead to blood poisoning and death. In November, a University of Arizona Scientist published a report that found that more than 40 percent of packaged meats sampled from three Arizona chain stores tested positive for C. diff. Nearly 30 percent of the contaminated samples of ground beef, pork and turkey and ready-to-eat meats like summer sausage were identical or closely related to the super-toxic strain of C. diff. Read JoNel Aleccia’s MSNBC report on this here. The C. diff superbug has also colonized hospitals and other institutions, and is considered one of the most dangerous public health threats at the moment.

As a side note, which really isn’t a side note at all, FDA runs the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), along with USDA and Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. The NARMS program monitors changes in antimicrobial drug susceptibilities of bacterial organisms in humans, animals, and retail meats to antimicrobial drugs important in human and animal medicine. Is the FDA’s policy reversal a cynical attempt at creating more work for itself, by allowing a flood of new antibiotic resistant organisms to be created, which will then have to be monitored, studied, and reported on, all at great expense to taxpayers?

And lastly, in addition to the lobbying by Big Ag for the continued exploitation of antibiotics to protect the profitability of meat animals, lobbying by Big Pharma can’t be overlooked. FDA is notoriously in the pocket of Big Pharma, and if across-the-board use of a whole class of anitbiotics is legally limited, so is the purchase of these drugs–and the attendant profits to drug makers. Big Pharma stands to lose a lot of money if their products have limited use, don’t they? But FDA has now ensured that pharmaceutical drug makers can sell all the product they wish.

We’ve been saying for a long time that eating organically produced, antibiotic-free, locally sourced and small-batch meat is not just about reducing carbon foodprints and supporting family farmers, but that it has literally become a life and death matter. The FDA has just bumped up the ante on this, and added to the huge spate of food safety problems President-elect Obama will face when he takes office. Further proof–as if any is needed–that FDA and USDA both need a complete and total revamp, and need to be immune to lobbying by anyone, whether it’s Big Pharma, Big Ag, The Grocery Manufacturers Association…Obama faces some huge challenges here….

The Haphazard Gourmet Girls