News / Health

    US Regulators Limit Antibiotics in Livestock

    Livestock huddle as they feed in an open field covered in ice, Dec. 7, 2013, near Corinth, Texas.
    Livestock huddle as they feed in an open field covered in ice, Dec. 7, 2013, near Corinth, Texas.
    U.S. regulators are asking drug companies to phase out the use of certain antibiotics intended to improve the growth of livestock.

    Critics have long argued the practice is contributing to the worldwide antibiotic resistance crisis.

    Large-scale livestock farms around the world often use small doses of antibiotics to help healthy animals grow faster with less feed.

    Public health experts say that encourages bacteria to evolve defenses, making the drugs less effective to fight infections.

    The new measure would end that practice over the next three years.

    It would require a veterinarian to write a prescription for all other uses.

    “With these changes, there will be fewer approved uses, and the remaining uses will be under tighter control to minimize the impact on resistance,” says FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor.

    Voluntary program

    The changes are voluntary, which has some angered some of FDA’s critics.

    Advocates have been pressing the agency for years to end the use of antibiotics as growth promoters.

    But Taylor says this approach is faster than going through the lengthy and complicated regulatory process.

    And FDA can still make the change mandatory if companies do not go along voluntarily, Taylor adds.

    Physician Dimitri Drekonja with the medical association the Infectious Diseases Society of America says FDA’s action is a good first step.

    “If this voluntary effort is taken up by the entire industry and everybody goes along with it, then it will actually be a needed first and potentially last step,” he added. “Now, will that happen? I have my doubts.”

    Making changes

    Some major drug companies have already agreed to make the changes, however.

    National Pork Producers Council Chief Veterinarian Liz Wagstrom says her industry is preparing to adjust.

    “We may lose some efficiency,” Wagstrom says. “We may have some animals that may not grow quite as quickly or take more grain to reach their full weight.”

    And they may see some more sick animals with the decline in antibiotic use, she says.

    But she declined to put a price tag on the changes.

    Measuring impact difficult

    How the new policy affects the drug resistance problem may actually be hard to measure.

    “It would be great if there was sort-of like a dashboard and you could watch the needle drop in the amount of antibiotics used and then watch the next gauge, which is the national resistance and see what happening there,” Drekonja says. “We don’t have two simple gauges like that.”

    There is a real lack of good data on the amounts of antibiotics used on farms, as well as by doctors, he notes.

    And others point out that some bacteria have remained resistant for years after certain antibiotics have been banned from animal use.

    But with officials warning about an approaching post-antibiotic era, doctors say they have been taking steps to limit their use of these important drugs, and they say the livestock industry should, too.

    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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    Comment Sorting
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    by: Davis K. Thanjan from: New York
    December 12, 2013 1:39 PM
    It is the addition of antibiotic growth promotants in feeds that propelled the meat industry in the US for more than half a century. The idea of transmission of resistant disease producing bacteria from animals to human due to small amounts of antibiotics in the feed is insignificant, if at all it occurs. The resistance development of infectious bacteria in human is not because of small quantities of antibiotic in feed. Antibiotic resistance development in humans is due to the miss use of antibiotics by MDs who over-prescribe antibiotics for cold, fever and other minor conditions that does not require antibiotics.

    The price of meat will increase, the diseases in animals will increase and the pharmaceutical companies will make more money with increased disease incidence in food animals. If the resistance development of human pathogenic bacteria is due to antibiotics in the feed of food animals, how come there is growing trend in the resistance development of drugs used for TB, AIDS and other diseases that are unique in humans? Any microbial will develop resistance to antibiotics due to short term or long term use.

    The antibiotic resistance is further enhanced by the patients who do not undergo the medication regimen. Blaming the antibiotic growth promotants in feeds as the cause of antibiotic resistance development in humans is too far fetched by the warriors of bureaucracy in the FDA. Why the FDA want to implement the banning of antibiotic growth promotants in feeds through the back door circumventing the normal procedures?

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