Antibiotics for livestock: FDA announces new guidelines to curb certain uses

The FDA is asking drugmakers to revise labels of certain antibiotics by removing references to use in animal production. Some see a link between such use and 'superbugs.'

Brian Snyder/ Reuters/ File
A turkey stands in its pen at a Massachusetts poultry farm. There have been growing concerns that giving antibiotic-laced feed to livestock has led to more cases of human diseases deemed to be antibiotic-resistant.

Citing public-health concerns, the Food and Drug Administration has announced new measures to phase out the use of antibiotics in livestock feed. Such use has been aimed at promoting growth in the animals.

The new guidelines encourage livestock farmers to curb the use of antimicrobials such as penicillin and tetracycline, which doctors use to treat infections in humans.

Reports of “superbugs” – diseases deemed to be resistant to antibiotics – have been increasing in the past few years, a phenomena that some scientists say is caused by using antibiotics in meat farming. That industry currently consumes 80 percent of the US antibiotics supply.

Most recently, a salmonella outbreak put a spotlight on some of these issues. In October, three California poultry factories were tied to hundreds of salmonella infections across 17 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An FDA report released in April stated that 81 percent of all the raw ground turkey the agency tested was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Such bacteria were also found in about 69 percent of pork chops, 55 percent of ground beef, and 39 percent of chicken, according to CNN.

As part of its new measures, the FDA asked global drugmakers and animal health companies to revise labels of antibiotics deemed medically important to humans by removing references to use in animal production, Reuters reports. 

Currently, livestock farmers are at liberty to purchase antibiotic-infused feed, but once companies remove farm-production uses of their antibiotics from drug labels, it would become illegal for those drugs to be used for those purposes, said Michael Taylor, an FDA deputy commissioner, in a conference call with journalists.

Compliance with the new measures is voluntary, but the FDA said it plans to take regulatory action against those who fail to comply. The agency is requiring that animal pharmaceutical companies notify it within three months of whether they intend to adopt the strategy. The companies will then have three years to fulfill FDA recommendations.

Twenty-five animal health companies could be affected by the guidelines, Reuters said. However, drugs that have no equivalent in the treatment of humans would still be permitted.

Some people are skeptical that the voluntary measures will make a difference.

The FDA issued similar voluntary guidelines in April 2012, but they appear to have been largely ignored by farmers, Morningstar analyst David Krempa told Reuters.

Compliance with the FDA's latest set of voluntary guidelines could be equally spotty, Mr. Krempa said.

"Compliance will be tough because all the farmers and meat producers know these products increase the size of their animals," he said. "They can continue to use them and just say there's a disease going through their herds."

Steve Roach, senior analyst with the advocacy group Keep Antibiotics Working, voiced a similar concern about the stated intent of antibiotic use.

"Our fear ... is that there will be no reduction in antibiotic use as companies will either ignore the plan altogether or simply switch from using antibiotics for routine growth promotion to using the same antibiotics for routine disease prevention," he told Reuters.

Mr. Taylor of the FDA said he believes asking the industry to make changes is the fastest way to help phase the drugs out. If the FDA made the process mandatory, he said, the agency would have to move forward with a complex regulatory process that could take years.

"We have high confidence based on dialogue with industry that this initiative will succeed," Taylor said, according to the Associated Press.

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