Rules Tighten on Antibiotic Use In Farm Livestock (Spring 2012 Trust Magazine Briefly Noted)

Author: Daniel LeDuc


05/25/2012 - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is calling for veterinarians to oversee all antibiotic uses on industrial farms, hoping to significantly curb farmers and ranchers’ use of the drugs to boost growth and production.

Currently, many antibiotics are available for animal use without a prescription and are routinely mixed into animal feed for cattle, pigs, chicken and other livestock.

The action came after doctors and public health scientists have been warning for decades that antibiotics are becoming ineffective against life-threatening human infections in large part because they are being overused on industrial farms. Eighty percent of U.S. antibiotic sales are for food animal production purposes. The drugs are often given at low levels to healthy animals to help them put on weight quickly and to compensate for unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. But those small doses actually encourage development of drug-resistant bacteria that can infect people. 

Tens of thousands of people in the United States die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections.

“The new strategy will ensure farmers and veterinarians can care for animals while ensuring the medicines people need remain safe and effective,” FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said in announcing the proposal in April.

Pew’s Human Health and Industrial Farming campaign has been urging the FDA to end the overuse and misuse of these drugs in healthy animals. Project director Laura Rogers commended the FDA’s move but offered a note of caution.  “It is the most sweeping action the agency could have taken with its existing authority since it covers all antibiotics used in meat and poultry production that are important to human health,” she said, “but there are some gaps that may allow some injudicious antibiotic uses to continue. FDA must close those loopholes.” 

At the beginning of the year, the FDA also announced that it would establish new limits for a class of antibiotics called cephalosporins. The drugs are commonly prescribed to treat pneumonia, strep throat and other infections in people and are vital in treating children.

Cephalosporins have not been as widely used in animals as other antibiotics, such as penicillin, because they require a prescription from a veterinarian. But on some farms it has been common practice, for example, to inject the drugs into broiler eggs even in the absence of disease.

Both actions by the FDA, however, are only first steps in restricting animal use of antibiotics to protect human health, according to Rogers.

She said it will be essential that the new rules are implemented properly, that the FDA receives the tools to monitor antibiotic use and that work continues to strengthen the provisions.  For more on Pew’s efforts in this area, go to www.saveantibiotics.org.

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