FDA eggs on producers to keep antibiotics out of livestock

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Antibiotics are routinely given to farm animals in order to increase their growth rate and protect their health in crowded conditions, but some scientists worry that such practices are abetting the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. While it s still unclear whether these harder-to-treat bacteria are actually being passed on to humans, one thing is certain the FDA isn t taking any chances.

In January, the agency announced a ban on the use of a class of antibiotics called cephalosporins in cattle, swine, chickens, and turkeys a move that made perfect sense to ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom who, at the time, pointed out that this class of antibiotics is widely used in humans, meaning it s probably wise to discontinue their use in livestock feed.

Although the initial plans to reduce or ban animal antibiotics as growth promoters began in 1977, the movement now seems to be gaining some momentum. Yesterday, the FDA announced draft recommendations that would restrict the use of antibiotics in farm animals even more tightly. Citing concerns that the benefits for meat production do not warrant the risk of promoting resistant germs, the agency is asking drug companies to voluntarily remove the label indications for weight gain and accelerated growth in livestock. The FDA is also requesting that a prescription from a veterinarian be required in order to use these drugs, which are currently sold over-the-counter to farmers. The prescription would be based on actual disease treatment or prevention.

Livestock growers argue, however, that the benefits of using these antibiotics are significant, and include a reduction in production costs, which gets passed on to the consumer in the form of lower food prices. ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross notes that the FDA s attempt to curtail livestock antibiotic use is a better be safe than sorry approach. Yet with such approaches, he says, people rarely think about the downside, which, in this case, is an increased cost to farmers and consumers. In fact, Dr. Ross isn t entirely convinced that antibiotic use in farm animals has anything to do with a rise in drug-resistant bacteria in humans. Though it s theoretically possible, he notes, there is no definitive evidence that this is occurring. There is no question that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a huge and increasing problem, especially in hospitals, but the bugs infecting already sick patients are not those generally treated with the antibiotics in question here.

Since the latest FDA guidelines are not binding, drug makers are not legally obligated to follow the recommendations, much to the chagrin of some activist groups. Yet as Mike Taylor, FDA Commissioner for foods, points out, the process of instituting a formal ban would be extremely cumbersome and could go on for decades. There s no point in going through these legalistic proceedings when companies are willing to make this shift voluntarily, he says.