In a bid to stem a surge in human resistance to certain antibiotics, the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday announced new guidelines to try to phase out the overuse of antibiotics as a growth enhancer in livestock.
Many cattle, hog and poultry producers give their animals antibiotics to prevent illness and make the animals grow faster. Now, the FDA says it will ask pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily stop labeling antibiotics that are important for treating human infection as acceptable for that growth promotion in animals.
If drug companies sign on — and one has already said it will — using those antibiotics to promote growth in animals would be illegal. Prescriptions would be required to use the drugs for animal illnesses.
The FDA has been debating how to address the issue of antibiotics in meatfor several years as consumers have become more aware of the issue and are clamoring for antibiotic-free meat. McDonald's, among other companies, has moved to limit the drugs in their meat, pushing many animal producers to go along.
Doctors and hospitals have become increasingly worried in recent years by new strains of bacteria that cannot be controlled by a wide range of current antibiotics. Part of the suspected reason for the emergence of these "superbugs" is that repeated exposure to meat that contained antibiotics may lead bacteria to become drug-resistant.
In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released sobering estimates that more than 23,000 people a year die from drug-resistant infections.
"We need to be selective about the drugs we use in animals and when we use them," said William Flynn of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "Antimicrobial resistance may not be completely preventable, but we need to do what we can to slow it down."
The new guidance will give the companies three years to comply.
Michael Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner of foods, said he believes asking industry to make the changes is the fastest way to help phase the drugs out. If the FDA made the process mandatory, he said, the agency would have had 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.
Drug company Zoetis, a leading manufacturer of animal antibiotics, has already said they will comply.
"This reflects our continued commitment to antibiotic stewardship and represents the many ways that Zoetis promotes the responsible use of antimicrobial drugs in animals," the company's statement said.
Taylor said in a conference call with journalists that about 25 animal health companies could be affected by the guidelines, especially Lilly and Zoetis.
But many antibiotics will still be available for those producers to use, just not those that the FDA has classified as most important for treating human infections. Some of the antibiotics that could not be used in animals are penicillins and tetracyclines, the FDA said.
And although agreeing to the guidelines is voluntary, Taylor said the FDA would be able to take regulatory action against companies that fail to comply once they have said they will change their labels.
The FDA's "final guidance" also brings the drugs under oversight of veterinarians by changing the over-the-counter status of the products.
The FDA said it will require animal pharmaceutical companies to notify the agency within three months of their intent to adopt its strategy.
Democratic lawmaker Louise Slaughter called the FDA move an inadequate response to the overuse of antibiotics "with no mechanism for enforcement and no metric for success."
Her view was echoed by consumer and environmental advocacy groups.
"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," said Steven Roach, senior analyst with advocacy groupKeep Antibiotics Working.
But Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) released a statement Wednesday praising the FDA’s move, calling it "a significant victory for public health that (takes) concrete steps towards accomplishing a goal I have been pushing for in my own legislation — to end the widespread and irresponsible use of antibiotics in agriculture.”
Al Jazeera and wire services