The Food and Drug Administration unveiled plans Wednesday to phase out the use of antibiotics in animal feed, amid growing concerns that the practice is harmful to public health.
The plan, the latest in a series of major food safety initiatives pushed this year by the Obama administration, targets the use of antimicrobials for the purpose of fattening chickens, pigs or other animals destined for dinner plates.
The phase-out is aimed at “medically important antimicrobials,” those used in penicillin, tetracycline or other antibiotics used to treat human infections.
Experts have warned for years that too much exposure to the drugs can lead to the emergence of drug-resistant strains of "superbugs" that are blamed for thousands of deaths every year.
“We know that antimicrobial resistance has significant public health consequences,” said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.
The plan follows other FDA efforts to cut trans fats from food and overhaul the nation's food safety system via a slate of sweeping regulations proposed in January.
The antibiotics plan relies partially on cooperation from the pharmaceutical industry. Guidance issued Wednesday asks companies to voluntarily remove growth-promotion claims from drug labels, signifying that they could no longer be used for those purposes.
With the guidance, companies have 90 days to decide whether they would adhere to the new policies, though Taylor said some leading veterinary drugmakers have already said they would comply.
The guidance sets out a three-year transition period to allow the agriculture industry time to move away from the widespread practice.
Once the growth-promotion claims are removed from drug labels, it would be illegal for food producers to use the medically important drugs for those purposes, Taylor said.
However, they could still be used to treat, control or prevent disease in animals, an allowance that drew immediate criticism from public health experts.
“Problems can arise whenever antibiotics are fed to animals at low doses for long periods of time,” said Keeve Nachman, a scientist with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “Whether you call it growth promotion or disease prevention, this makes antibiotics less effective for treating sick people.”
While the plan would still allow the drugs’ use in animals, they would no longer enjoy over-the-counter status and would be brought under the supervision of licensed veterinarians, who could only grant use for the intended purposes.
The FDA also issued a proposed rule Wednesday meant to clarify regulations for Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) drugs and speed the transition away from over-the-counter use.
Taylor defended the FDA’s decision to pursue the phase out of antibiotics through voluntary action, saying it avoids a lengthy and difficult drug-by-drug rulemaking process.
“The FDA is leveraging the cooperation of the pharmaceutical industry to voluntarily make these changes because we believe this approach is the fastest way to achieve our goal,” he said. “Based on our outreach, we have every reason to believe that animal pharmaceutical companies will support us in this effort.”
But Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who has championed legislation imposing mandatory restrictions, panned the FDA’s plan.
“The FDA’s voluntary guidance is an inadequate response to the overuse of antibiotics on the farm with no mechanism for enforcement and no metric for success,” Slaughter said in a statement issued Wednesday. “Sadly, this guidance is the biggest step the FDA has taken in a generation to combat the overuse of antibiotics in corporate agriculture, and it falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.”
Slaughter’s bill would limit the use of eight classes of antibiotics to humans and sick animals.