FDA’s Weak Plan to Phase Out Routine Use of Antibiotics in Animals

The increasing resistance to antibiotics has long been in the news. So has the widespread practice of giving those meds to livestock not only to treat disease, but to speed growth. Last week, the FDA finally acknowledged that such business practices are a threat to public health, and announced that nonmedical use of antibiotics on farm animals would be phased out.

Although the news was welcomed in the medical and food-safety communities, the government’s commitment to addressing the growing problem of antibiotic resistance was seen in some quarters as half-hearted because the decision to stop the routine use of antibiotics in animals is voluntary.

As we noted in a blog last year, antibiotics are the front line against bacterial infection in humans; they also are used to grow animals faster by commercial ranchers. Such widespread use of antibiotics encourages the ability of the microbes they’re supposed to annihilate to mutate and develop resistance. So the ability of antibiotics to resolve human infection is compromised.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, farms consume about 80% of the U.S. antibiotics supply. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2 million people in the U.S. contract drug-resistant infections annually, resulting in 23,000 deaths.

The FDA’s plan requires voluntary cooperation from the drug industry; more than two dozen manufacturers that supply antibiotics to the meat industry, said The Times, are being asked to remove growth promotion claims on products that are similar to drugs used on humans. Some of the drugs involved are common, including penicillin and tetracycline.

An FDA spokesman told The Times that so far, the agency has received commitments to follow the plan from two major drug producers, former Pfizer subsidiary Zoetis and Elanco, which is owned by Eli Lilly & Co.

Drugs that aren’t linked to antibiotic resistance in people could still be used to promote growth in animals.

To critics concerned that drug companies won’t fully comply with a voluntary the proposal, the FDA responds that a mandatory ban on certain antibiotics would have resulted in costly and lengthy litigation, delaying the intended public-health benefit.

The FDA also would require livestock and poultry producers to get prescriptions before they can use antibiotics to treat food animals. Currently, they can get such drugs over the counter at the feed store.

The prescription requirement would mean veterinarians would have to evaluate individual farms to determine whether drugs are medically necessary, including as a preventive measure for disease.

The idea is that vets will prescribe antibiotics based solely on what’s best for the animals. But many of them depend on farmers and meat producers for their livelihoods, and some critics wonder if the FDA considered that some doctors might have ethical lapses.

The drug companies will have three months to notify the FDA if they agree to the plan. After that window has closed, the feds said they would disclose how many companies had volunteered to comply. The public also is invited to comment on the plan.

As The Times reported, the Animal Health Institute, which represents drug makers, the American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council and the National Pork Producers Council support the FDA plan.

But as Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-N.Y.), said in The Times story, “The FDA’s voluntary guidance is an inadequate response to the overuse of antibiotics on the farm with no mechanism for enforcement and no metric for success. Sadly, this guidance is the biggest step the FDA has taken in a generation to combat the overuse of antibiotics in corporate agriculture, and it falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.”

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