Livestock Antibiotic Use to be Limited by FDA Due to Human Health Risks

Federal health officials hope to phase out the use of antibiotics to encourage the growth of livestock, citing growing resistance among humans to antibiotic drugs as a major reason for the need to limit use of the drugs on food-producing animals.

On December 11, the FDA issued draft guidance for a voluntary plan to limit the use of certain antibiotic drugs for enhanced food production. The plan calls for antibiotics to be used for therapeutic uses only, instead of as growth enhancers.

The agency is concerned about the widespread use of antibiotic drugs among livestock, which may be jeopardizing human health by creating a resistance to these drugs.

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The guidance requests pharmaceutical companies who manufacture antibiotic drugs for food producing animals to revise the FDA approved conditions on drug labels. The new program will also create changes to the Veterinary Feed Directives (VFD) process, the system which governs the distribution and use of drugs.

The changes will phase in veterinary oversight, as opposed to over-the-counter availability, for the use of antibiotic drugs for therapeutic uses in food producing animals. Once the changes have been made, using antibiotics for growth will no longer be allowed.

The FDA is asking companies to notify the agency within the next three months of their intention to participate. If so, the companies will then have three years to fully implement the changes outlined.

The guidance outlines a plan that will be entirely voluntary, as officials believe a voluntary plan is the “fastest, most efficient way to make these changes.”

Antibiotics are often added to animal feed or drinking water to help cattle, poultry and hogs gain weight faster or use less food to gain weight. The concern is antibiotics may contribute to the development of human resistance to the same drugs. Antibiotic resistance can be transferred to humans who eat food from the animals receiving the drugs.

Growth-promoting antibiotic use in food providing animals has been under major scrutiny in recent years.

In August, Merck announced the launch of a study focusing on the health risks of Zilmax, a popular cattle supplement used to increase cattle weight. The decision came after cattle which had been given Zilmax exhibited difficulty walking and movement. The company has indicated that the decision was made based on animal welfare, but critics point to Zilmax as the culprit of the animal lameness.

Some have criticized the voluntary nature of the plan, indicating that there is no incentive, positive or negative, for companies to participate.

Officials recommend antibiotics should only be used when medically necessary. Approximately 70 percent of medically important antibiotics sold in the United States are used on food producing animals.

Last year, the FDA was ordered by a U.S. judge to begin eliminating the use of antibiotics on farms. Prompted by the growing concern of antibiotic-resistance infections in humans, the FDA was required to begin eliminating non-medical use of antibiotics like, penicillin and tetracycline antibiotics.

Recently, the CDC issued a statement calling the use of antibiotics in animals to promote growth as unnecessary and calling for the drugs to be phased out. According to CDC estimates, more than 23,000 people a year are dying from drug-resistant infections.

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