Use of antibiotics to fatten cattle, hogs and chickens for human consumption will be phased out by 2017, as U.S. regulators seek to curb a rise in more deadly forms of foodborne pathogens.
Farmers would no longer be able to purchase the medicines without a veterinarian’s approval under a plan announced yesterday by the Food and Drug Administration. Drugmakers will be asked to agree to increased controls over three months, then will have three years to change labels to remove production uses of antibiotics, including for weight gain and accelerated growth.
Antibiotics, often the last line of defense for humans against life-threatening germs spread commonly in hospitals, are starting to lose power because of overexposure. The FDA deliberately sidestepped rescinding approval of the drugs’ for livestock completely, saying a voluntary approach would lead to a faster reduction in the use of the medicines.
“It is a hollow gesture that does little to tackle a widely recognized threat to human health,” Avinash Kar, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “FDA has essentially followed a voluntary approach for more than 35 years, but use of these drugs to raise animals has increased.”
About 2 million Americans a year are infected by drug-resistant bacteria, often in hospitals and nursing homes, and at least 23,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Congressional Democrats also criticized the FDA guidance, which they said isn’t strong enough to substantially reduce the use of antibiotics at farms.
“This voluntary, pro-industry approach is a step in the wrong direction,” U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the senior Democrat on an appropriations subcommittee that funds the FDA, said in a statement. “For the good of public health, FDA should step up and implement tighter restrictions.”
Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said the best strategy is to work cooperatively with the pharmaceutical industry.
“This approach is the fastest way to achieve our goal,” Taylor said in a statement. “Based on our outreach, we have every reason to believe that animal pharmaceutical companies will support us in this effort.”
Overuse of the medicine on animals eaten by humans is being blamed for foodborne outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant pathogens that have sickened 19,897 people and killed 26 from 1973 to 2009, according to data from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group.
About 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are administered to livestock, not to humans, DeLauro said. That gives companies little motive to volunteer to reduce the medicines’ use at farms, said NRDC’s Kar.
Zoetis Inc., the Madison, New Jersey-based animal-health business that Pfizer Inc. spun off this year, said it supports the FDA’s decision.
“Zoetis has been a leader in providing ongoing education to veterinarians and livestock producers on the proper use of antimicrobial drugs to treat, control, and prevent infection and disease in livestock animals,” the company said in a statement. “As the new policies move forward, we remain committed to researching and developing new therapeutic products and strategies.”