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FDA Research Helps Keep Animals and People Healthy

Renate Reimschuessel holding trout at CFSAN lab (350x424)

Renate Reimschuessel, who set up the aquaculture research facility at FDA, gently returns a live trout to the tank.


You may know the primary mission of the Food and Drug Administration is to promote and protect the public health—but are you aware of the important role of animals in achieving it?

According to John S. Graham, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine’s (CVM) Office of Research (OR), “The Office supports CVM’s mission to approve new medications for animals and monitor marketed animal drugs, food additives, and veterinary devices to assure their safety and effectiveness. Our work with animals also helps protect the U.S. food supply to keep people healthy.”

Graham doesn’t mean only familiar laboratory animals such as mice. The Office of Research houses a wide variety of animals, including beef and dairy cattle, goats, pigs, sheep, poultry, and a broad range of aquatic species.

FDA takes special care that all of these animals receive careful, humane treatment.

To that end, all FDA animal programs are accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC), a private, nonprofit organization that promotes the humane treatment of animals in science through voluntary accreditation and assessment programs. In addition, all FDA components are in compliance with regulations and requirements of the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, at the National Institutes of Health.

The Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at the Office of Research includes veterinarians, research scientists, biostatisticians, and nonscientists from the community. The committee meets monthly to review animal use protocols and other animal-related issues, to ensure the continued humane treatment of laboratory animals, and it conducts a complete review semi-annually to evaluate all aspects of the animal care and use program and the research facilities.

The research complex—including laboratories, animal buildings, pastures, a feed mill and an extensive aquaculture facility—covers 165 acres in Maryland and is staffed by experts in veterinary medicine, animal science, biology, chemistry, microbiology, immunology, epidemiology, pathology, and pharmacology.

It comprises three divisions in animal and food microbiology; residue chemistry; and applied veterinary research. Each division plays an important role in supporting FDA’s regulatory actions regarding the veterinary medicines and the animal-derived foods that we eat, says Graham.

Studying Antimicrobial-Resistant Bacteria in the Foods We Eat

For example, in the Division of Animal and Food Microbiology, researchers are focusing on the use of antimicrobials (drugs that kill or slow down the growth of bacteria) in food-producing animals. “When antimicrobial drugs are used in food-producing animals, they can potentially increase drug resistance among bacteria that reach humans via the food supply,” Graham explains. This makes illnesses caused by these bacteria harder to treat.

In addition, to better understand how bacteria develop antimicrobial resistance in both animals and humans, FDA partners with the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in managing the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), which:

  • Monitors trends in antimicrobial resistance among foodborne bacteria from humans, retail meats, and animals.
  • Disseminates timely information on antimicrobial resistance to promote programs that reduce it among foodborne bacteria.
  • Conducts research to better understand how antimicrobial resistance develops and spreads.
  • Helps FDA in making decisions related to the approval of safe and effective antimicrobial drugs for animals.

Drugs in Food?

Are the medicines that treat animals making their way into our food supply?

That’s a key focus of the Division of Residue Chemistry.

“We look at animal feed and edible tissues from food-producing animals, for example, for drug residues that shouldn’t be there,” says Graham.

Researchers are looking at the role animal feed may play in transmitting foodborne pathogens (organisms that cause disease) into the animal production environment before they enter our diets. The Office of Research maintains and operates its own feed mill—a miniature version of those used by manufacturers—and mixes feed and animal drugs in a controlled way for use in experiments. By milling and mixing its own feed with the studied medications and additives, researchers can ensure the mixture is evenly distributed throughout, and every sample provides accurate results.

The division also examines food products for trace amounts of veterinary drugs used in livestock to ensure that milk and other food from the treated animals are safe for people to eat, and that the drugs do not harm the animal or the environment.

Aquaculture Research

The Division of Applied Veterinary Research does work in antimicrobial resistance and milk and meat safety that complements that of the other two divisions. Another key focus is its work in aquaculture (the farming of fish and other aquatic animals).

“It’s a lot less expensive and more efficient to do experiments in fish than it is in, say, cattle,” Graham explains, “but it can be equally illuminating.”

For example, most of the fish we eat in the U.S. is imported. Because fish farmers in other countries could follow different standards for using drugs and chemicals—which may not be approved for use in the United States—FDA scientists have developed methods and models to find illegal drugs and chemicals in edible fish.

“We are working on methods to detect antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, hormones, and drugs in fish to ensure there are no harmful pathogens (bacteria or virus) or drug residues in what we eat,” Graham says.

Researchers are also developing safe and effective therapies for use in aquaculture by developing data on pharmacokinetics in different fish species. (Pharmacokinetics is the study of how the body absorbs, distributes, metabolizes and excretes drugs.) This work helps FDA predict when an animal should stop getting certain drugs to ensure food produced from that animal has no harmful drug residues.

Vet-LIRN: A Network of Shared Data

Finally, FDA’s Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network (Vet-LIRN) collaborates with veterinary diagnostic laboratories across the country to share scientific information, build laboratory capacity and train scientists. Vet-LIRN helps CVM investigate potential problems with animal feed and drugs. The network has been investigating the illnesses in dogs and some cats associated with eating jerky pet treats. Member laboratories have been testing both the treats and samples from the affected animals to find the elusive source of these illnesses. In addition, labs share data collected by FDA, often enabling the agency to pinpoint problems more quickly.

“The work we are doing here is state-of-the-art,” Graham says. “We are providing research solutions that ensure the safety of animal-derived foods and products to improve both animal and human health.”

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