April 11, 2012 -- The FDA today said it's giving the food industry three years to voluntarily stop using antibiotics to make food animals grow faster.
Such "production use" of antibiotics is widespread. It's a major reason why 80% of antibiotics go to animals.
But the practice is fast creating new strains of drug-resistant superbugs that threaten human health, according to the FDA, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and other public health groups.
Thirty-five years ago, the FDA issued a formal finding that use of antibiotics should be banned. Consumer groups sued and petitioned the FDA to act on this finding. In December 2011 the FDA withdrew the finding.
Now the FDA has taken action. Today the agency made final its June 2011 "guidance" asking the food industry to voluntarily stop feeding antibiotics to animals in order to make them grow faster.
Why no ban? The FDA says it would take too long and cost too much. And the food industry is ready to make the change, Michael Taylor, the FDA deputy commissioner for foods, said today at a news teleconference.
"There has been a sea change in the willingness of government, drug companies, and the animal industry to solve the problem of antimicrobial drug resistance," Taylor said. "We have been pleased with the response we have received since 2010."
Cuting Antibiotic Use in Food Animals
Under the FDA's voluntary plan:
- The food industry would give antibiotics to animals only under the supervision of a veterinarian.
- Veterinarians would prescribe antibiotics for food animals only to prevent, control, or treat specific diseases.
- Drugmakers would voluntarily change antibiotic drug labels to indicate use of the drugs only when the animals' health is threatened, and only with veterinarian oversight or consultation. A draft of this proposal was issued today and is open for public comment for 90 days.
- New rules will govern the use of antimicrobial drugs in animal feed. A draft of the new rules was issued today and is open for public comment for 90 days.
- The FDA will phase in the plan over the next three years. After that time, the FDA promises to check on how the plan is working and to take stronger action if it isn't.
But it's not at all clear that the animal industry is ready to comply. In a news release, the National Pork Producers Council said it opposes the plan.
"The loss of and restricted access to products expected with implementation of the [FDA] guidance on the use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry production likely will disproportionately affect small producers, have a negative effect on animal health, and increase the cost of producing food while not improving public health," the NPPC said.
Consumer and environmental advocates were quick to condemn the FDA plan.
While commending the FDA for moving forward on the issue, Consumers Union said it was "disappointed" that the plan was merely voluntary. "We need stronger, quicker action," Jean Halloran, Consumers Union's director of food policy initiatives, said in a statement.
FDA is "pretending to act while barely acting at all," said a statement from the National Resources Defense Council.
What's Wrong With How Antibiotics Are Given to Food Animals?
Most of the antibiotics given to food animals are put in their feed or water. This almost always is done on a herd-wide or flock-wide basis. It makes animals put on weight faster and makes them gain more weight with less food.
When antibiotics are used this way, the dose the animals get isn't enough to kill off all the bacteria inside them. Over time, the bacteria become more and more drug resistant. When such superbugs infect humans, standard treatments don't cure the infection.
There are some researchers, such as an expert panel of the Institute of Food Technologists, who say the odds are low that any of these bugs will find their way into humans. But in testimony before Congress, the USDA, the FDA, and the CDC all said that the use of antibiotics in food animals leads to infections with drug-resistant bacteria in humans.