U.S. FDA Recommends Reducing Antibiotics in Livestock


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Overuse of medication in livestock is affecting us humans. Image by Jheemstra.

Overuse of medication in livestock is affecting us humans. Image by Jheemstra.

Could antibiotic-filled meat and dairy foods be on their way out?

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing a plan to fade out the use of human antimicrobial drugs in livestock. This new plan would, however, allow for vets to supervise  animals who need the antibiotics.

The guidance document the FDA released this week is only a recommendation on the FDA’s current thinking – it does not eliminate the use of antibiotics in livestock. The guidance entitled, “New Animal Drugs and New Animal Drug Combination Products, Administered in or on Medicated Feed or Drinking Water of Food-Producing Animals: Recommendations for Drug Sponsors for Voluntarily Aligning Product Use Conditions with GFI #209” was finalized on April 11, 2012.

Livestock and Antimicrobial Drugs

We use antimicrobial drugs to treat infections that can be bacterial, fungal, viral, or from a parasite – labs designed these drugs for humans, not for livestock.

However, many farmers and stockyards now supply these drugs to their livestock via the feed and water supply to reduce infections and help the animals gain weight faster.

According to Food Safety News, nearly 80 percent of all antibiotics in the United States are made for livestock. Overusing these drugs can lead to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the animals, and ultimately, in humans. This is a problem for humans, as simple infections that once were treated with antibiotics that are no longer effective can lead to humans having severe complications – including death.

Using Antibiotics in the Food Supply: Recommendations

Among other recommendations, the document addresses asks the pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily revise the FDA-approved label that describes the conditions under which consumers can use a drug. The FDA is specifically asking the drug companies to do the following: “(a) remove the use of antimicrobial drugs for production purposes; (b) add, where appropriate, scientifically-supported disease treatment, control or prevention uses; and (c) change the marketing status from over-the-counter to Veterinary Feed Directive for drugs administered through feed or to prescription status for drugs administered through water in order to provide for veterinary oversight or consultation.” 

This means that we can still use these medications to treat, prevent, or control disease in animals, but only with a prescription from a veterinarian. However, these recommendations are currently only voluntary. If the product labeling is changed, however, anyone who uses the drug for livestock without a prescription will be in violation.

Antibiotics in Food: What Happens Next

An FDA agency spokesperson told Food Safety News, “Based on extensive outreach to affected stakeholders, including the animal

Animals living in crowded conditions are more likely to get infections and need antibiotics. Image by Knut E. Haug

Animals living in crowded conditions are more likely to get infections and need antibiotics. Image by Knut E. Haug.

pharmaceutical industry, FDA is confident that it will see a high level of cooperation in implementing the recommended changes.

But will livestock companies comply and voluntary reduce the antibiotics that they use – and only use them under the supervision of a veterinarian, not only increasing costs but reducing income?

Some people aren’t so sure. U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), whose heads the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, told Food Safety News, “Sadly, this guidance is the biggest step the FDA has taken in a generation to combat the overuse of antibiotics in corporate agriculture, and it falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.

However, others are hopeful that this is a step in the right direction. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said that this is “a significant victory for public health that take concrete steps towards … the widespread and irresponsible use of antibiotics in agriculture.” 

Eliminate Overuse of Drugs in Livestock

While this guidance recommends that companies begin to voluntarily comply with the recommendations, it is a step to eliminating these medications that are used in livestock’s food and water, especially when they are not needed. To determine if these voluntarily changes are making an impact, the FDA is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to improve tracking data on the amount of antibiotics that are being sold for livestock as well as tracking antimicrobial resistance among foodborne pathogens as part of a program called the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System.

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