FDA tries to limit antibiotics in meats

The Food and Drug Administration called on meat producers to voluntarily limit the use of antibiotics on farm animals, citing growing concerns over human exposure to bacterias that develop resistance to common drug treatments. 

SOURCE: USDA.gov / Lance Cheung

The agency yesterday issued non-binding recommendations to phase out the widespread and indiscriminate use of antibiotics on animals raised for human consumption.

“It is critical that we take action to protect public health,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “The new strategy will ensure farmers and veterinarians can care for animals while ensuring the medicines people need remain safe and effective.”

According to the FDA guidelines, livestock producers should refrain from using antibiotics except in medically-necessary cases to ensure the animal’s health. The FDA also recommended that the antibiotic drugs, some of which can be obtained over-the-counter, be administered with veterinary consultation and oversight.

“Using medically important antimicrobial drugs as judiciously as possible is key to minimizing resistance development and preserving the effectiveness of these drugs as therapies for humans and animals,” according to the FDA’s guidelines on the “Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals.”

The FDA also presented a three-year plan to work with drug companies to re-label antibiotics to specify that the drugs should be used for disease treatment and preventions only.

Antibiotics have been widely used to promote growth and weight gain in animals such as cattle, pigs, and chickens. However, the overuse of antibiotics have increased the number of bacterias – known as “superbugs” – that are immune to one or more antibiotics.

A 2004 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that “antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been transferred from animals to humans.” A subsequent report by the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that ” there is a preponderance of evidence that the use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals has adverse human consequences.”

Humans who contract antimicrobial drug resistant bacterias, such as the Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), often face higher death rates and longer, more expensive hospital stays as doctors resort to more potent and toxic treatment options.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that antibiotic resistance adds $20 billion in health care costs and more than 8 million extra hospitalization days in the U.S. per year. About 90,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections every year, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases.

The disturbing scientific findings prompted the European Union to ban the use of growth-promoting antibiotics in animals in 2006.

The FDA’s long-awaited guidelines received a lukewarm reception from food advocates. The Union of Concerned Scientists expressed skepticism on whether the voluntary nature of the FDA’s rules would lead to widespread adoption.

The pork and beef industries wasted no time in attacking the FDA’s guidelines. Both industries raised objections to the requirement that farmers consult with veterinarians before administering drugs to animals.

“The guidance could eliminate antibiotics uses that are extremely important to the health of animals,” said National Pork Producers Council President R.C. Hunt, a pork producer from Wilson, N.C. “And the requirement for VFDs could be problematic, particularly for smaller producers or producers in remote areas who may not have regular access to veterinary services.”


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