FDA hopes to curb antibiotic use on farms

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(CNN) — Farmers’ frequent use of antibiotics to help livestock grow is contributing to the rise of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the Food and Drug Administration says.

The government agency is hoping to phase out the use of certain antibiotics with a new plan for the food production industry, announced Wednesday.

“It is important to use these drugs only when medically necessary,” the FDA said on its website.

“Governments around the world consider antimicrobial-resistant bacteria a major threat to public health. Illnesses caused by drug-resistant strains of bacteria are more likely to be potentially fatal when the medicines used to treat them are rendered less effective.”

An FDA report released in April showed that 81% of all the raw ground turkey the agency tested was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And turkey wasn’t the only problem — antibiotic-resistant bacteria were found in about 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef and 39% of chicken.

Antibiotics are used in livestock to prevent disease, but they are also used as a protectant and to help growth. About 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold in 2011 for meat and poultry production, compared with the 7.7 million pounds sold for human use, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Antibiotic use in animals is out of hand,” said Dr. Gail Hansen, a veterinarian and senior officer for the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, a project aimed at phasing out overuse of antibiotics in food production.

“We feed antibiotics to sick animals, which is completely appropriate, but we also put antibiotics in their feed and in their water to help them grow faster and to compensate for unhygienic conditions. If you have to keep the animals healthy with drugs, I would argue you need to re-examine the system. You don’t take antibiotics preventively when you go out into the world.”

The FDA recommends that use of “medically important antimicrobial drugs” in food-producing animals be restricted to situations where they are necessary to ensure animal health, and used under veterinary supervision, an agency representative told CNN in April.

The FDA will now begin working to address how farmers are using these drugs to enhance animals’ growth or reduce the amount of feed they use.

Its plan will explain how animal pharmaceutical companies can work with the FDA to phase out the drugs over a three-year time frame.

Under the plan, therapeutic uses of animal antibiotics would require veterinary oversight, meaning antibiotics could be used in food-producing animals only under veterinary orders to treat, prevent or control disease.

In a statement, the Animal Health Institute said it and its member companies support the policy and will continue to work with the FDA to implement it.

“We are in favor of maintaining the important therapeutic uses of disease treatment, disease control and disease prevention, and believe that phasing out sub-therapeutic uses will increase consumer confidence that antibiotics are being used wisely to protect animal health and thereby human health,” the organization said.

The American Meat Institute also said it welcomed the move.

“AMI strongly supports the prudent and judicious use of antibiotics in food animal production under the care of a veterinarian, as defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association, which is consistent with protecting both animal and public health, ensuring the ability to medically treat animals, and maintaining the highest standard of animal welfare practices,” the group said, adding the FDA proposal “adheres to these principles.”

Currently, the law tracks only how many antibiotics are sold; it does not mandate data collection on how many animals are given the drugs or how much. Without that information, it is hard to know where antibiotics are used.

It’s the FDA’s latest move targeting food production and quality. Last month, the agency took a step toward potentially eliminating most trans fats from the food supply.

By Jacque Wilson and Jen Christensen

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