In 2016, a new US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policy will give veterinarians a key role in combating a surge in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. For the first time, the agency will require veterinarians, not farmers, to decide when antibiotics are administered. While medical doctors issue antibiotics by prescription only, farmers and food companies have been able to buy the same or similar drugs over the counter to add to feed and water. Antibiotics not only help prevent disease but enable livestock to grow faster on less feed. Today, about 80 per cent of all antibiotics used in the US go to food-producing animals. The new FDA directive is meant to guard against the overuse of the drugs in American meat production. But by enlisting the help of veterinarians, a Reuters examination found, the FDA will be empowering a profession that not only has allegiances to animals, farmers and public health, but also has pervasive and undisclosed financial ties to drug manufacturers.
The relationships between medical doctors and the pharmaceutical industry are subject to strict rules. The Physician Payments Sunshine Act (2010) has disclosed billions of dollars in payments to doctors from drug companies. There is a reason financial transparency was put in place for physicians – increasing evidence of conflicts of interest influencing doctors’ decisions. However, no laws or regulations, including the new FDA directives, require veterinarians to reveal financial connections to drug companies.
Drug and medical-device companies are pouring millions of dollars a year into research and development of pet medicines, hoping they can help make up the difference from expiring patents on blockbuster human drugs and a slowdown in human drug approvals. Retail sales of pet medicines in the US in 2013 were $7.6 billion, up more than 60 per cent from 2006, according to the Federal Trade Commission and Packaged Facts. Moreover, the growth shows no sign of stalling, with sales projected to reach $10.2 billion by 2018. Last year, the third-biggest initial public offering on Wall Street was Zoetis, a spinoff from drug giant Pfizer, and now the largest animal health company in the world. Eli Lilly is relying on its Elanco animal health division to cushion the pain as it copes with the loss of patents on key human drugs. On January 1, Lilly paid $5.4 billion to acquire Novartis’ animal health division. As veterinarians are the conduit for the sale of animal drugs, the drug-makers are spending lavishly on them, and the AVMA to gain loyalty. For example, the AVMA accepted $3.3 million from drug companies over the past four years.
The upcoming FDA directive is designed to create a gatekeeper between drug companies and food producers. However, food animal veterinarians predict that the new rules will do little to stanch the flow of antibiotics to farmers because drug companies need to maintain volumes and profits. The FDA’s handling of the antibiotics issue illustrates the conflicts facing the industry and the government. The agency’s Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee discussed the use of antibiotics four times between 1999 and 2006. Among the 22 veterinarians who participated in those discussions, half had a financial tie with one or more companies selling antibiotics. In the two most recent meetings, an even higher percentage – seven of 10 – had financial ties to drug makers. Last year, the FDA dissolved the group, deeming the veterinary committee “no longer necessary because of other opportunities for input.” Among those other opportunities is a task force formed by veterinary colleges. The members include Willie Reed, the dean at Purdue University’s veterinary school. Purdue pays Reed $276,000 a year. In March, Zoetis named him to its board of directors. That position pays Reed $240,000 annually in cash and stock and requires directors to act in the fiduciary interest of the company.
The task force announcement last month did not mention Reed’s tie to Zoetis.