The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said today it is calling on the nation's pork, beef, and poultry producers to reduce their use of antibiotics. But some watchdog groups say this voluntary guidance doesn't go nearly far enough.
The issue has been contentious for decades. Just last month, a federal judge ruled that the FDA had to go ahead with a plan it proposed in 1977 that would ban the use of some antibiotics as a growth promoter in animals.
Farm animals in the U.S. actually consume far more antibiotics than people do in part because producers want to keep their animals healthy. But a big reason animals routinely get antibiotics is that the drugs also make them grow faster.
For years, the FDA has been saying that practice is both unnecessary and dangerous. It increases the chances that bacteria in animals will become resistant to drugs — and those drug-resistant bacteria can then infect people. But that hasn't significantly reduced use.
Today, the FDA unveiled a plan aimed at ending the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. It's the formal and more detailed version of draft guidelines issued in 2010, which lays out a roadmap for making it happen.
Rather than banning that use, the agency aims to collaborate with drug companies, veterinarians, and livestock producers.
Update at 5:32 PM ET: That collaboration will be voluntary. Michael Taylor, the FDA's Deputy Commissioner for Food, says this will be a more effective approach, because any attempt to ban specific uses of more than a hundred separate drugs — and then defend each one in court — would be a hugely cumbersome undertaking: "Decades of effort, and millions and millions of dollars of resources."
Scott Hurd, a veterinary scientist at Iowa State University, says that the voluntary approach will have a real effect on farmers' practices. "Even though it's called guidance, people take it as the gospel and the law, so growth promotion usages will go away," he says.
Activists were divided on the FDA announcement.
"This is the most sweeping action the agency has taken in this area, as this covers all antibiotics used in meat and poultry production that are important to human health," said Laura Rogers, director of the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, in a statement.
But Avinash Kar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says today's action is a "make-believe" solution. He wrote: "industry is not required to do anything. This is an ineffective response to the real and sobering threat of rising antibiotic resistance, which threatens human health."
The NRDC is one of several organizations that sued the FDA to force the agency to implement the 1977 proposed ban. That's the lawsuit that the federal judge ruled on last week.
There's an additional complication. The FDA wants to reduce the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, while allowing continued use of the drugs to prevent disease. But what's truly necessary to prevent disease is a matter of interpretation.
Consider what happened when the European Union banned the use of antibiotics for the purpose of animal growth promotion. The law was passed in the late 1990s, but took effect in 2006.
Dik Mevius, a leading expert on antibiotic resistance at the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, says meat producers there simply started using more antibiotics for what was still allowed: Preventing disease or treating it. "We saw a more or less doubling of those drugs that were used for therapy, so the total exposure of animals to antibiotics remained virtually the same from 1999 to 2007," he says.
After that, though — and after lots of Dutch pig farmers realized that they and their families were carrying antibiotic-resistant strains of disease-causing bacteria — the Dutch government clamped down hard.
Each farm now has to report how often it uses antibiotics for all purposes. Farms that use a lot are told specifically what they need to do to cut back. The government is funding lots of research into farming methods that don't require antibiotics.
Antibiotic use in the Netherlands is now coming down.
Rogers told NPR that the FDA may need to do something similar so that prescriptions aren't simply re-written to call them disease prevention drugs. "The loophole that does remain is these uses of the drugs for prevention purposes, and they are used in massive quantities. so that's where the FDA is really going to have to dig in," she says.
So stay tuned. Firmer guidance there may now be, but the long wrangle over antibiotics in animals is far from over.
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The Food and Drug Administration announced a plan today to cut back the use of antibiotics on farm animals. If it works, within three years, pork and chicken producers will no longer use antibiotics to make their animals grow faster.
But NPR's Dan Charles reports, the plan has its share of skeptics because it relies on voluntary cooperation.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Pork and chicken producers use antibiotics to fight off disease, but also to help their animals grow faster and use feed more efficiently. The FDA's been worried about the overuse of antibiotics on the farm for decades. The reason is, the more these drugs are used, the more quickly bacteria in the animals will develop resistance to them. Some of these microbes can infect people, too, and then the antibiotics won't work.
Thirty-five years ago, the agency proposed banning the use of some antibiotics as growth promoters, then it withdrew the proposal. Today, Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for food, announced a new approach.
MICHAEL TAYLOR: We must find a practical and effective way to limit the use of these animal drugs to treating, controlling and preventing specific disease.
CHARLES: The FDA is starting some intensive consultations with the drug industry and veterinarians. The agency says it has persuaded drug companies to stop listing more efficient production as an acceptable use of antibiotics or antimicrobials in farm animals. And no drugs will be used on animals without a veterinarian in charge.
But all this is voluntary. The reason, Taylor says, is the voluntary route is more practical and effective than trying to legally ban hundreds of different drugs and defend each one in court.
TAYLOR: It's decades of effort and millions and millions of dollars in resources.
CHARLES: And we don't even need to go through that, Taylor says. The meat industry now is willing to limit its use of antibiotics only to what's really necessary to treat or prevent disease.
Scott Hurd, a veterinarian at Iowa State University and a former USDA official, says this voluntary approach will change farmers' practices.
SCOTT HURD: Because, even though it's called a guidance, essentially, people take it as the gospel and as the law, so growth promotion usages will go away.
CHARLES: Now, some people don't buy that. The Natural Resources Defense Council called today's FDA action make believe reform. Skeptics say the industry has shown little interest in change. Also, what's truly necessary use of antibiotics is a matter of interpretation.
Consider what happened in parts of Europe when the European Union banned the use of antibiotics for the purposes of animal growth promotion in 2006. Dik Mevius, a leading expert on antibiotic resistance at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, says meat producers there simply started using more antibiotics for what was still allowed, preventing disease or treating it.
DIK MEVIUS: So we saw a more or less doubling of those drugs that were used for therapy, so the total exposure of animals to antibiotics remains virtually the same from 1999 to 2007.
CHARLES: After that, though, and after lots of pig farmers realized they and their families were carrying antibiotic resistant strains of disease-causing bacteria, the Dutch government clamped down hard. Each farm now has to report how often it uses antibiotics for all purposes. Farms that used a lot are told specifically what they need to do to cut back. The government is funding lots of research into farming methods that don't require antibiotics and antibiotic use is now coming down.
Laura Rogers with the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming says the FDA may need to do something similar so the prescriptions aren't simply rewritten to call them disease prevention drugs.
LAURA ROGERS: The loophole that does remain is these uses of the drugs for prevention purposes and they are used in mass quantities, so that's really going to be where FDA's going to have to dig in.
CHARLES: The FDA says it will see how well this voluntary program works over the next three years. If it doesn't seem to be effective, the agency will have to try something different.
Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.