Will Factory Farms Finally Have to (Gasp!) Get a Vet’s Approval to Use Antibiotics?
Almost 80 percent of antibiotics consumed in the United States go to livestock farms; antibiotic-resistant pathogens affecting people are on the rise; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made the connection between those two developments. So what’s the Food and Drug Administration doing to curb overuse of these key drugs on animal farms?
On Wednesday, the FDA spelled it out by releasing recommendations (text [PDF]; press release) on how on how drugmakers should “voluntarily” modify the way they administer antibiotics to the meat industry. It also released a proposal that would require a veterinarian’s signoff for antibiotics that are commonly used in human medicine—which would represent a major departure from the antibiotics free-for-all that holds sway today.
Some of these “medically important” antibiotics are widely used on livestock farms. Taketetracycline, a drug used in human medicine to treat urinary-tract infections, acne, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and other maladies. In 2009, for example, an analysis of FDA data by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that US livestock farms burned through more than 10 million pounds of tetracycline—compared to total human consumption of all antibiotics of just 7.3 million pounds.
The FDA will be taking comments on this proposal, known as the Veterinarian Feed Directive, for the next 90 days.
Meanwhile, the new recommendations—also released Wednesday—narrow the “prevention” loophole, which Ipointed out when the FDA first floated the new system in April 2012. Currently, factory livestock farms use antibiotics in three ways: The first is what the FDA calls “production”: The livestock industry discovered in the 1950s that when animals get small daily antibiotic doses, they put on weight faster, and the practice has been embraced ever since. No. 2 is disease “prevention”: When you concentrate animals together, they’re prone to illness and and pass diseases among themselves quickly. Daily antibiotic doses can boost their immune systems and keep them from coming down with bugs. The third use is disease treatment, the one we humans are familiar with: You come down with a bacterial bug and and treat it with antibiotics.