The Food and Drug Administration is asking meat producers to reduce their routine use of antibiotics in livestock raised for food, citing concerns that overuse will reduce the effectiveness in the drugs for humans.
The message, attached to final guidelines released Wednesday, is in keeping with the concerns of consumer advocates and public health officials. For years, advocates have been raising alarm at the possible connection between casual antibiotic use and the growth of drug-resistant "superbugs". But the measure is essentially toothless. It bans no drugs and provides no punishment for producers who fail to comply with its recommendations.
"The guidance is the latest instance of the administration’s inadequate response to the growing public health crisis of antibiotic resistance," the group Keep Antibiotics Working, which has lobbied intensively on the issue, said in a statement. "(I)t is difficult to rely on industry to rein in its overuse, given that in public it rarely even admits antibiotic use is problem."
FDA officials said it would be too difficult to ban all of the drugs covered under the policy. The new guidelines ask that certain antibiotics, now commonly given routinely to animals to promote growth and health, be reserved to treat sick animals or those at immediate risk of disease. Under the guidance, farmers would need to consult with veterinarians before administering the drugs.
“The new strategy will ensure farmers and veterinarians can care for animals while ensuring the medicines people need remain safe and effective," FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said in a statement.
FDA offiicals said they opted for a voluntary framework because banning the many antibiotic drugs currently used on feedlots would be difficult and expensive under current law, which would require each drug to be reclassified one at a time. Many other countries have outlawed the routine use of such drugs.
"We can make changes more quickly than if we had to rely slowly on a cumbersome regulatory process that would require us to seek change drug by drug," Michael Taylor, the FDA's Deputy Commisioner for Foods, said in a telephone briefing.
Taylor said that the guidance was finalized in consultation with the meat industry, and said FDA expects significant reductions in antibiotic use within three years.
Still, not everyone in the meat industry was cheering the guidelines. Full compliance would require significant changes in feedlot practices. The National Pork Producer's Council released a statement criticizing the decision as bad for animal health and problematic for small producers without easy access to veterinarians.
“The guidance could eliminate antibiotics uses that are extremely important to the health of animals,” said R.C. Hunt, a pork producer from Wilson, N.C., and the organization's president.
Consumer advocates said the guidelines were welcome, but pointed out that the voluntary rules do not guarantee changes.
"FDA has taken an important step to protect the public's health," said Laura Rogers, the director of the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. "There are some gaps in these measures that we will urge FDA to address and, because this is voluntary, we will have to monitor antibiotic usage and resistance rates carefully. If these measures do not bring down antibiotic use and drug-resistant bacteria, then FDA will have to take additional steps."
Concern has risen over the routine use of antibiotics, as a series of antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli and salmonella have been linked to farm animals.
A draft version of the guidance was initially published in June, 2010.