U.S. food regulators need to take further steps to curb antibiotics use in livestock to maintain the drugs’ ability to defend human health, according to an advocacy group.
By early next year, animal drugmakers have agreed to abide by U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines to stop using antibiotics used in human medicine to help livestock and poultry gain weight faster. Some antibiotics had been used for that purpose on farms for decades, alongside treating and preventing disease.
But researchers for the Pew Charitable Trusts said Tuesday in a review of livestock antibiotics that the new guidelines don’t go far enough. The Philadelphia-based group said regulators need to clamp down on how long some antibiotics can be used, and more closely scrutinize some uses that may not directly relate to keeping animals healthy. Pew is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that researches consumer, environmental and health issues, including a focus on the impacts of large-scale food production.
“The FDA is taking steps in the right direction, but there is a lot more that needs to be done to ensure that these antibiotics are being used responsibly,” said Karin Hoelzer, officer for health programs with Pew.
An FDA spokeswoman said the agency considers the duration of antibiotics use “an important next step” to evaluate, including the idea that some drugs may be used for unspecified periods. “The agency does not believe such use is judicious and has been actively engaging veterinary organizations, animal producer organizations and other stakeholders to address this concern,” she said.
Meat companies and livestock producers argue that antibiotics are a critical tool to keep animals healthy as they are raised by the tens of millions, and that the use of antibiotics has helped make meat production more efficient.
But consumer health and animal welfare groups have pressured the U.S. food industry for years to reduce its reliance on antibiotics, some of which are used to treat humans and animals alike.
The White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alongside some international health authorities, have warned that widespread use of antibiotics in both human and animal care raises the chances that harmful bacteria will evolve to resist the drugs, making those bacteria a bigger threat to human health.
The FDA in late 2013 requested animal drugmakers stop using antibiotics needed for human medicine to help animals gain weight faster. Though the FDA’s guidance was voluntary, animal pharmaceutical companies said they would comply with a Jan. 1, 2017, deadline set by regulators.
Regulators’ efforts to scale back antibiotics use on farms gained momentum as some of the biggest U.S. restaurant chains, including McDonald’s Corp. and Subway, over the past few years announced plans to buy meat produced with less antibiotics.
Those plans have prompted meat companies and livestock producers to re-engineer housing for animals, develop alternative treatments like probiotics, and test new technology to monitor animal health.
Even after animal drugmakers no longer allow their products to be used to help livestock gain weight faster, many antibiotic drugs can still be misused, Pew said Tuesday.
Of nearly 400 labels for antibiotics used to treat both animals and humans, about 100 don’t specify how long they should be used to treat animals, and 80 others “raise concerns” about whether their permitted use qualifies as “judicious” under the FDA’s principles, according to the Pew review.
That means that a poultry farmer, for example, could dispense antibiotics indefinitely in birds’ feed or water to ward off illness, according to Pew. Or drugs could be dispensed to cattle for the purpose of keeping them from losing weight, regardless of whether a disease is threatening the herd, the group’s researchers wrote.
Some antibiotics bearing labels that don’t specify a duration for use previously were used to help animals gain weight, Ms. Hoelzer said, which could tempt producers to overuse them and raise larger animals using less feed.
The Animal Agriculture Alliance, an industry group representing animal drugmakers and livestock producers, said that under the FDA’s guidance taking effect next year, all antibiotics used in human medicine that also are used on farms will be dispensed under a veterinarian’s supervision.
“The duration of use should be dictated by the disease threat; we cannot tie the hands of veterinarians by removing their ability to make medical decisions appropriate to all situations,” officials for the group said in a statement.