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Antibiotics in Food Animals: FAQ

Antibiotics in Food Animals: FAQ

Didn't the FDA ban use of one antibiotic in food animals?

In January 2012, the FDA banned certain uses of cephalosporin antibiotics in food animals effective April 5, 2012.

The ruling prohibits giving food animals the kinds of cephalosporins used to treat disease in humans or in pets. Exceptions allow off-label use by veterinarians to treat specific diseases, and allow the use of an older cephalosporin called cephapirin, which is not used in humans.

Cephalosporins are not one of the antibiotics used to increase animal growth.

Cephalosporins are important human drugs introduced in 1964. They are often used to treat pneumonia. Cephalosporins are also used to treat ear, skin, urinary tract, and other infections.

In 2010, U.S. meat and poultry producers used 27 tons of cephalosporins. That sounds like a lot. But it's only a fraction of the 14,600 tons of antibiotics used in food animals that year.

One consumer group called the FDA action a step forward -- but only a baby step.

Will the FDA ban use of other antibiotics in food animals?

There is no indication that the FDA plans to ban food-animal use of other antibiotics already approved for such uses.

Antibiotics have been used for what the FDA now calls "injudicious uses" since the 1950s. In the now famous "Swann Report," U.K. researchers in 1969 concluded that feeding low-dose antibiotics to animals posed a health risk to humans.

The U.S. government in 1970 formed its own task force to look at the issue. Eventually -- in 1977 -- the FDA issued a formal finding that all animal use of penicillins and low-dose animal use of tetracyclines should be banned.

But the FDA never acted on this finding. Environmental groups filed a lawsuit to force FDA to act. The FDA asked for more time. On Dec. 22, 2011, the FDA finally withdrew its 1977 finding.

Meanwhile, in 1999 and in 2005 environmental groups filed citizen petitions demanding that the FDA ban non-health-related antibiotic use in food animals. In November 2011, the FDA issued a statement saying it was "concerned" about injudicious food-animal use of antibiotics -- but that the petitions were denied.

What is the FDA doing about its concerns over antibiotic use in food animals?

The FDA says it takes too long and costs too much to formally ban unwise use of antibiotics in food animals. Instead, in a formal response to the citizen petition to ban such use, the FDA said it would ask the food industry to voluntarily stop "production use" of antibiotics.

That strategy is outlined in an unusual "draft guidance to industry" issued in June 2010 but not yet made final. Entitled "The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals," the paper chronicles over 40 years of scientific and government reports linking antibiotic use in food animals to drug-resistant infections in humans.

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