TIME Agriculture

New Report Says FDA Allowed ‘High Risk’ Antibiotics to Be Used on Farm Animals

Experts worry that the overuse of antibiotics on livestock is leading to resistant-strains of bacteria Elyse Butler via Getty Images

Antibiotic resistance claims 23,000 lives a year in the U.S.—and the overuse of antibiotics in livestock plays a role. Is the FDA doing all it can to protect Americans?

A stark fact: around 80% of the antibiotics by weight used in the U.S. are given not to sick human beings, but to farm animals. And for the most part, these drugs aren’t prescribed by veterinarians to save ill pigs or chickens, but instead are administered to animals in low doses in their food and water, for the purpose of growth promotion—the drugs seem to help livestock pack on weight—and prophylactially, to help them survive the packed conditions of a modern factory farm.

That the heavy use of antibiotics on farm animals in the U.S. can pose a real health threat to human beings—by inadvertently promoting the growth and spread of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria—is something that nearly every expert outside the food and drug industries agrees on. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 2 million Americans are sickened and 23,000 die each year thanks to antibiotic-resistant infections, and while some of that is due to the overprescription of antibiotics to human beings, use and abuse of the drugs in meat production plays a significant role as well, but it’s one that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has long been reluctant to crack down on.

Now a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) underscores just how lacking the FDA’s regulation of antibiotics in farm animals has been. Using FDA documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the NRDC found that the agency allowed 30 potentially harmful antibiotics—18 rated as “high risk” by the FDA itself—to remain on the market for use as additives in livestock feed and water. Despite internal FDA reviews that raised questions about the risks posed by the drugs, the additives still remain approved and many of the drugs are still on the market for food production. “The FDA knew the risks, but they still haven’t done anything to revoke the approval of these drugs,” says Avinash Kar, an attorney for the NRDC and the co-author of the new report.

(MORE: Farm Drugs: The FDA Moves to Restrict (Somewhat) the Use of Antibiotics in Livestock)

The FDA has been looking at antibiotics in farm animals since 1970, when the agency convened a joint task force of experts that eventually found that the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock—meaning for growth promotion or for prophylactic use on healthy animals—could lead to resistant strains of bacteria that could threaten human health. In 1973, the FDA adopted regulations that required drug manufacturers to prove the safety of antibiotics used in animal feed and water. In 1977 the FDA found that the use penicillin and tetracyclines—two classes of antibiotics that are widely used to treat humans—in animal feed was unsafe, and proposed to withdraw approval of the drug classes. But according to NRDC’s findings, the agency never followed through.

In 2001, prompted by legislation that set aside money for the agency to look at antibiotics, FDA experts began reviewing livestock feed additives already in use that contained penicillin or tetracyclines. The additives—30 altogether—were reviewed according to two sets of criteria: the 1973 safety regulations, and 2003 guidelines meant to evaluate the safety of any new animal antibiotic drugs. (The 2003 guidelines gauged the risk of antibiotics in feed leading to resistant strains of bacteria, as well as the chance those strains can reach people and damage human health. The antibiotics would then be classified as low, medium or high risk.) The internal FDA documents unearthed by the NRDC show that agency experts found that 26 of the 30 additives had never even met the initial 1973 safety criteria. The agency also found that 18 of the 30 additives posed a “high risk” of exposing human beings to antibiotic-resistant bacteria through the food chain, according to the criteria set out by the 2003 guidelines.

(MORE: Talking Meat and Antibiotics)

For the 12 remaining additives, manufacturers hadn’t even supplied the FDA with sufficient evidence for the agency to determine the health risk they might pose to human beings. According to the NRDC, none of the 30 antibiotic feed additives in question could be approved today under the current guidelines. Because the FDA does not disclose sales of specific animal drugs, it’s impossible to know how widely those additives are still being used in animal feed. But the NRDC found evidence that at least nine of the additives are still being marketed today, and 28 of the drugs apparently still remain approved for use. The remaining two were withdrawn voluntarily from the market.

While the food industry says that restricting antibiotics in livestock would lead to sicker animals and more expensive meat, it is possible to have a major meat producing industry without the dangerous use of antibiotics for growth promotion. The European Union has banned all antibiotic growth promoters in animal feed, and Denmark—which produces about as many hogs as Iowa even though the Scandinavian country is more than three times smaller than the Hawkeye State—has banned all prophylactic uses of antibiotics in animals. But while a few food companies in the U.S. like Chipotle have touted their drug-free meat, millions of pounds of antibiotics are still being used on farms. There are a pair of bills in Congress that would curb antibiotic use in animals—the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) in the House and the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act (PARA)—but neither are likely to pass.

That leaves the FDA, which has in recent years begun to move gently on antibiotics in animal feed. Last month the agency released guidelines that ask drug manufacturers to change their labels voluntarily so that farmers would no longer be able to use the drugs for growth promotion, and instead would need a veterinarian’s prescription to use the drugs for therapeutic purposes, rather than simply allowing them to be bought over the counter. The FDA has said that voluntary guidelines will lead to faster changes in antibiotic use, largely because tougher rules could face time-consuming legal challenges from the food industry. And the agency says that once the labels on drugs have been changed, it would be illegal for the additives to be used for growth promotion—and the FDA has claimed it would take action against companies that failed to comply.

In response to the NRDC report, Siobhan DeLancey of the FDA’s Veterinary Medicine team noted that two major drug companies have expressed support for the agency’s new guidelines, which she said are informed by the FDA’s earlier scientific review of those 30 additives. She added that the FDA expects to fully implement its strategy to phase out all medically important antimicrobials—including the penicillins and tetracyclines called out by the NRDC—within three years:

The FDA is confident that its current strategy to protect the effectiveness of medically important antimicrobials, including penicillins and tetracyclines, is the most efficient and effective way to change the use of these products in animal agriculture. We note that our strategy also does not limit our authority to take future regulatory action.

But consumer and environmental groups are doubtful that much will change without a legal mandate. “The FDA has the authority to move independently on this,” says Kar. “It seems to me the FDA is using the specter of time and resources to justify a voluntary approach.” Until that changes, neither will our other drug problem.

(MORE: Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food)

TIME

Hundred Years of Dry: How California’s Drought Could Get Much, Much Worse

California faces historic drought
California is the driest it has been on record, but its geologic history indicates the drought could get far worse David McNew / Getty Images

Scientists fear California's long-ago era of mega-droughts could be back

As he gave his State of the State speech yesterday, California Gov. Jerry Brown had reason to feel pretty good. The 75-year-old governor has helped rescue the state from fiscal insolvency and presided over the addition of 1 million new jobs since 2010. But as he spoke, Brown hit a darker note. Last week, amid the driest year for the state since record-keeping began in the 1840s, Brown declared a drought emergency for California, and in his speech he warned of harder times ahead:

Among all our uncertainties, weather is one of the most basic. We can’t control it. We can only live with it, and now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration…We do not know how much our current problem derives from the build-up of heat-trapping gasses, but we can take this drought as a stark warning of things to come.

(MORE: Can GM Crops Bust the Drought?)

Californians need to be ready, because if some scientists are right, this drought could be worse than anything the state has experienced in centuries. B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has looked at rings of old trees in the state, which helps scientists gauge precipitation levels going back hundreds of years. (Wide tree rings indicate years of substantial growth and therefore healthy rainfall, while narrow rings indicate years of little growth and very dry weather.) She believes that California hasn’t been this dry since 1580, around the time the English privateer Sir Francis Drake first visited the state’s coast:

If you go back thousands of years, you see that droughts can go on for years if not decades, and there were some dry periods that lasted over a century, like during the Medieval period and the middle Holocene [the current geological epoch, which began about 11,000 years ago]. The 20th century was unusually mild here, in the sense that the droughts weren’t as severe as in the past. It was a wetter century, and a lot of our development has been based on that.

Ingram is referring to paleoclimatic evidence that California, and much of the American Southwest, has a history of mega-droughts that could last for decades and even centuries. Scientists like Richard Seager of Columbia University’s Lamont-Dohery Earth Observatory have used tree-ring data to show that the Plains and the Southwest experienced multi-decadal droughts between 800 A.D. and 1500 A.D. Today dead tree stumps—carbon-dated to the Medieval period—can be seen in river valley bottoms in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and underwater in places like California’s Mono Lake, signs that these bodies of water were once completely dry. Other researchers have looked at the remains of bison bones found in archaeological sites, and have deduced that a millennium ago, the bison were far less numerous than they were several centuries later, when they blanketed the Plains—another sign of how arid the West once was. The indigenous Anasazi people of the Southwest built great cliff cities that can still be seen in places like Mesa Verde—yet their civilization collapsed, quite possibly because they couldn’t endure the mega-droughts.

(MORE: How the Drought of 2012 Will Make Your Food More Expensive)

In fact, those droughts lasted so long that it might be better to say that the Medieval West had a different climate than it has had during most of American history, one that was fundamentally more arid. And there’s no reason to assume that drought as we know it is the aberration. Ingram notes that the late 1930s to early 1950s—a time when much of the great water infrastructure of the West was built, including the Hoover Dam—may turn out to have been unusually wet and mild on a geologic time scale:

I think there’s an assumption that we’ll go back to that, and that’s not necessarily the case. We might be heading into a drier period now. It’s hard for us to predict, but that’s a possibility, especially with global warming. When the climate’s warmer, it tends to be drier in the West. The storms tend to hit further into the Pacific Northwest, like they are this year, and we don’t experience as many storms in the winter season. We get only about seven a year, and it can take the deficit of just a few to create a drought.

These mega-droughts aren’t predictions. They’re history, albeit from a time well before California was the land of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. And the thought that California and the rest of the modern West might have developed during what could turn out to be an unusually wet period is sobering. In 1930, a year before construction began on the Hoover Dam, just 5.6 million people lived in California. Today more than 38.2 million live in the largest state in the U.S., all of whom need water. California’s 80,500 farms and ranches produced crops and livestock worth $44.7 billion in 2012, but dry farming districts like the Central and Imperial Valleys would wither without irrigation. (Altogether, agriculture uses around 80% of the stare’s developed water supply.) More people and more crops have their straws in California’s water supply. Even in normal years, the state would be in trouble. If we see a return to the bone-dry climate of the Medieval period, it’s hard to see how the state could survive as it is now. And that’s not even taking the effects of climate change into account—the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found that it was likely that warming would lead to even drier conditions in the American Southwest.

In his speech, Brown told Californians “it is imperative that we do everything possible to mitigate the effects of the drought.” The good news is that the sheer amount of water we waste—in farms, in industry, even in our homes—means there’s plenty of room for conservation. The bad news is that if California lives up to its climatological history, there may not be much water left to conserve.

(MORE: Rising Temperatures and Drought Create Fears of a New Dust Bowl)

TIME ecocentric

How a Plant Virus May Help Cause the Beepocalypse

A new study says that a plant virus could be killing honeybees YunhyokChoi via Getty Images

A new study finds that a plant pathogen could play a role in honeybee colony collapse disorder

Honeybees are dying. In the winter of 2012-2013, one-third of U.S. honeybee colonies died or disappeared, a 42 percent increase from the year before and well above the 10-15 percent losses beekeepers once thought was normal. Many of them have been hit by colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious and still unexplained malady that wipes out honeybee hives. Given that honeybees pollinate about one in every three mouthfuls of food you eat—adding some $15 billion worth of value to crops each year—this is a big deal. And we don’t know why they’re dying.

As I wrote in a cover story for TIME last summer, there’s no shortage of possible causes. Agricultural pesticides, Varroa destructor mites, the Israeli paralytic virus (IASV), the loss of open wilderness—each and every factor could play some role in the death of the bees. But there’s been no single smoking gun—which has made it that much tougher to save the bees.

(MORE: The Plight of the Honeybee)

A new study, though, may shed more light on the beepocalypse. Researchers at the USDA’s Agriculture Research Laboratory, as well as academics in the U.S. and China, have found evidence of a rapidly mutating plant pathogen—the tobacco ringspot virus (TRSV)—that seems to have jumped into honeybees, via the pollen bees collect as they fly from flower to flower. The study, published in the journal mBio, found that the virus spread systematically through infected bees and hives, reaching every part of their bodies except the eyes.

While it’s not yet clear how TRSV spreads among honeybees, or what it may do to the infected—though researchers theorize it attacks the nervous system—the study found that the presence of TRSV, along with other bee viruses like IASV, was correlated with lower rates of honeybee colony survival over winters.

Part of what makes TRSV so worrying is that it’s an RNA virus, like HIV and the influenza virus in humans, which allows it to rapidly mutate and evade its hosts’ immune defenses. As a plant virus that has found a way to jump the species barrier, TRSV could be especially tricky. Cross-species pathogens are so new that hosts generally have no defense against them.

Still, this virus isn’t acting alone. The researchers found that the virus was present in Varroa mites, blood-sucking parasites that have killed millions of bees in the U.S. since being introduced in the late 1980s. It’s possible that the mites could help spread the virus from bee to bee and colony to colony, or could weaken the honeybees enough to make them more susceptible to new pathogens like TRSV. The more we learn about CCD, the more it seems as if bees are suffering from a host of ills—pathogens and pesticides and nutritional problems—all interacting in ways we haven’t yet untangled. TRSV is far from a smoking gun, but it could be a very big bullet.

(PHOTO: The Bee, Magnified)

TIME Retail

Colorado’s Pot Shops Say They’ll Be Sold Out Any Day Now

Marijuana Cigarette
Getty Images / Image Source

A few days into the experiment, the new world of legal-recreational-marijuana sales in Colorado appears to be a big success — so much so that pot shops are finding it impossible to keep up with demand.

According to the Denver Post, at least 37 stores in Colorado were licensed to sell recreational pot to anyone 21 or over as of New Year’s Day. The Associated Press and others reported long lines outside Denver pot shops, with some eager customers forced to wait three to five hours before getting a chance to go inside, step up to the counter and make a purchase.

Prices have been steep — in some cases, stores were charging $50 or even $70 for one-eighth of an ounce of pot that cost medical marijuana users just $25 the day before — and taxes add on an extra 20% or so. Even so, sales have been brisk.

The two operational pot shops in Pueblo collectively sold $87,000 of marijuana on Jan. 1, per the Pueblo Chieftain, and store owners say if demand persists anywhere near the current high, they’ll be sold out in the very near future. Likewise, Toni Fox, owner of the 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that a sellout is imminent. “We are going to run out,” she said on Thursday, Day 2 of legal-recreational-marijuana sales. “It’s insane. This weekend will be just as crazy. If there is a mad rush, we’ll be out by Monday.”

Another Associated Press story noted that some shops had to close early on Wednesday because they didn’t have enough marijuana on hand to oblige customers.

(MORE: Colorado’s ‘High Country’ Takes On New Meaning)

For more than a month, many have speculated that Colorado pot shops would not be able to meet demand due to the limited number of stores open in the state, as well as tough regulations regarding how marijuana is grown and distributed at the wholesale level. Of course, strong demand — especially from “smoke birds,” a.k.a. out-of-state tourists visiting Colorado for legal marijuana purchases — also plays a big role. By most accounts, since Jan. 1 more than half of pot sales have gone to non-Coloradans.

Prices in legal pot shops have already risen to upwards of $400 an ounce. Once you factor in taxes, as well as the fact that it looks like shops may periodically be sold out for a while, and some are saying the situation is one that could push pot enthusiasts back to buying marijuana on the black market. “People will get real tired of paying the taxes real fast,” one street dealer in Pueblo named Tracy told the Chieftain. “When you can buy an ounce from me for $225 to $300, the state adds as much as $90 just for the tax.”

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