The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued the most welcome news that it will be implementing a voluntary plan known as Guidance 213, instructing the agricultural industry to phase out the use of certain antibiotics added to animal feed to help them livestock gain weight faster on less food. The FDA reports that so far nearly all drug companies that make antibiotics for use in animal feed said they would remove the words “growth promotion” from their labels, effectively making it illegal for farmers and ranchers to administer the drugs for that purpose.

For years the FDA knew about, but ignored, evidence that the use of antibiotics on factory farms is harmful to humans and did nothing to stop their use. Routine sub-therapeutic feeding of antibiotics—particularly those containing penicillin and tetracycline, which are termed “medically important” because they are used to treat human diseases —has promoted the rapid rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Many bacteria are developing cross resistance, where the bacteria becomes resistant to multiple drugs, rendering untreatable infections caused by eating the bacteria in improperly cooked meat.

The FDA is working with the animal pharmaceutical companies to remove growth-enhancement and feed-efficiency claims from the approved uses for their medically-important antimicrobial drug products. This would change the use of these products from over-the-counter availability to a status requiring veterinarian oversight. Once the manufacturers make these changes, the products can only be administered to food animals to treat, prevent, or control disease by prescription from a licensed veterinarian.

However, even therapeutic uses of antibiotics can promote the development of drug-resistant bacteria. Moreover, some public health experts are skeptical that the new guidance from the FDA will change much, fearing that the industry will continue administering the drugs, claiming they are necessary to prevent disease.

The meat-production industry does not deny that the spread of antibacterial resistance is a problem. However, proponents of the use of sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics in animal feed contend that the resistance stems from the overuse of antibiotics in animals and in humans. Industry spokesmen point out, quite correctly, that we also should look to the practice (now found on a worldwide scale) of prescribing antibiotics to humans for minor illnesses that are not even caused by bacteria.

According to former FDA Commissioner Donald Kennedy, approximately 80 percent of antibiotics sold in this country are intended for food animals and not for humans. Many, if not most, of these animals are raised in inhumane factory farm conditions. Treating these animals for genuine illness is an important use of the drugs. In contrast, extensive prophylactic use of medically-important drugs to ward off infection in animals suffering in overly-confined conditions increases the threat that these drugs will no longer be useful in treating humans.

The FDA must now finalize its Guidance 213, monitor it for compliance, and if the misuse continues, it must not hesitate to enforce the restrictions by regulatory action. •