FDA plans to phase out some antibiotics on factory farms

An important first step or a symbolic gesture? Photo: USDA

WASHINGTON, December 17, 2013—The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last week that it is taking action to phase out the use of some antibiotics in animals raised for food.

While this is an encouraging first step after decades of inaction, many fear FDA’s move is merely symbolic and will have little actual effect on the use of antibiotics on industrial livestock farms and the rise of antibiotic resistant superbugs.

SEE RELATED: Factory meat killing Americans with antibiotic resistant MRSA bacteria

Besides using antibiotics to treat sick animals, factory farms also use antibiotics for “production purposes.” In other words, small amounts of antibiotics are routinely added to animal feed to make animals gain weight faster or with less food. Antibiotics are also used to prevent infections that arise form the overcrowded, unsanitary and unhealthy conditions prevalent on factory farms.

Most antibiotics purchased in the U.S. are used on animals. According to several estimates, over 80 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to livestock.

Several studies have concluded that, along with over prescription by doctors, the overuse of antibiotics in livestock is contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria in humans. Antibiotic resistant bacteria infect an estimated two million people and kills 23,000 people yearly in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As these superbugs become more prevalent, antibiotic resistant bacteria is considered an increasingly serious public health issue.

Even though overuse of antibiotics in livestock was identified as a problem since the early 1970s, the FDA has done little to curb their use in livestock for production purposes. The European Union banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in 2005 and 2006. 

SEE RELATED: Shocking rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in supermarket meats

Last week, FDA released a new guidance outlining its plan to phase out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in livestock by encouraging drug makers to change the labels on their products and requiring veterinarian involvement when using antibiotics in the future.

Under this voluntary program, drug companies are urged to change the labeling of their products, marking them no longer indicated for growth promotion. Changing the labels on antibiotics would make their use for weight gain off-label and essentially illegal.

FDA also wants to emphasize the role of veterinarians in administering antibiotics to livestock. Currently, farmers are able to buy and administer antibiotics over the counter without a prescription or the participation of a veterinarian. Under FDA’s new guidance, companies that participate will only be able to administer antibiotics under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Companies will have three months to notify FDA whether they plan to participate and if so, they will have three years to make the necessary changes in order to comply. Two of the largest antibiotic manufacturers, Zoetis and Elanco, have announced that they will comply with FDA’s request.

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Other pharmaceuticals appear to support the new policy. The Animal Health Institute, representing pharmaceuticals that produce animal drugs, told the New York Times that it supports the guidance and “will continue to work with the F.D.A. on its implementation.”

Reaction by the meat industry has been dispassionate. The National Pork Producers Council said that it expects hog farmers “will follow the law.” The National Chicken Council stated in a press release that most of the antibiotics used in the chicken industry are not used in human medicine and the poultry industry has been working with veterinarians for years.

While several groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics applaud the new guidance, others argue that it is a voluntary program and question how much of a difference it will make in practice. 

FDA answered criticisms by stating that making the program voluntary because it was more efficient and would take less time to implement.

“It avoids legalistic, product-by-product regulatory proceedings that would take years to complete,” Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, told the New York Times.

Other critics say that FDA does not address the use of antibiotics to prevent infection arising from unacceptable conditions on livestock farms.

“It is inappropriate to routinely feed antibiotics to healthy animals just because they live in overcrowded conditions that are conducive to the spread of disease,” said Gail Hansen, a doctor of veterinary medicine and senior officer with Pew Charitable Trusts in a press release. “Antibiotics are not the solution to that problem; better animal husbandry and hygiene are. FDA can cut down on those inappropriate uses while still allowing veterinarians to protect animal health.”

However, others are happy to see FDA taking any kind of action to curb the use antibiotics and see it as an important first step.


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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