After more than three years of back and forth with the farm industry and advocacy groups, the Food and Drug Administration issued a rule on Wednesday that would forbid the non-medical use of common antibiotics in livestock in an effort to prevent the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria.
The rule would prevent the casual use of a class of antibiotics called cephalosporins in cattle, poultry, pigs, and turkeys starting in April. The goal is to protect human health – use of antibiotics in animals is linked with the development of germs that resist similar antibiotics. These so-called superbugs now infect hundreds of thousands of people in the United States each year.
Cephalosporins can be used to fight infections caused by staphylococci, E. coli, Haemophilus influenza, enterobacter, and other common bacteria. “If cephalosporins are not effective in treating these diseases, doctors may have to use drugs that are not as effective or that have greater side effects,” the FDA said in a statement.
The FDA has found that animals dosed with these drugs, often as a simple growth-promoting measure, are more likely to carry drug-resistant germs in their flesh and manure.
“In its order, FDA is prohibiting what are called ‘extralabel’ or unapproved uses of cephalosporins in cattle, swine, chickens, and turkeys, the so-called major species of food-producing animals,” the agency said. This includes the very common practice of dosing animals that are not sick.
"We believe this is an imperative step in preserving the effectiveness of this class of important antimicrobials that takes into account the need to protect the health of both humans and animals," said Michael Taylor, deputy FDA commissioner for foods.
The comment period on the new order closes on March 6. The FDA first proposed the rule in 2008 and has been tweaking it ever since because of objections from a range of groups.
Advocates welcomed the decision.
“Today’s action is a good first step,” said Laura Rogers, project director of the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. “This restriction is a victory for human health, as it will help ensure we can still rely on cephalosporins to treat life-threatening infections today and in the future.”
“While we welcome FDA’s belated action, the delay is shocking,” the group Keep Antibiotics Working said in a statement. “Tens of thousands of people continued to become ill from cephalosporin-resistant salmonella when there was clear evidence the extra-label use of these drugs contributes to the spread of these and other resistant superbugs,” added the group’s David Wallinga.
Wallinga’s organization and other groups objected last month when the FDA issued a rule saying it was stopping attempts dating back to 1977 to remove approvals for using the antibiotics penicillin and tetracycline from use in livestock feeds .
"Today's action should not be interpreted as a sign that FDA no longer has safety concerns or that FDA will not consider reproposing withdrawal proceedings in the future, if necessary," the agency stated. "FDA has not ruled out the prospect of future regulatory action.”