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FDA targets antibiotics in meat

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December 13, 2013 | Leave Comment

By Stacy Finz
The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that it will begin curbing the use of some medically important antibiotics commonly fed to animals to fatten them for market, a policy change that could significantly affect both the livestock industry and human health.

Until now, politicians, scientists and consumer groups have tried to ban the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in livestock, saying that overuse of the drugs was making them less effective and creating more resistant bugs. But industrial farmers have argued that the drugs also keep their animals from getting sick in crowded conditions and dying.

Wednesday’s ruling, a three-year plan called the Veterinary Feed Directive, was hailed by many as a victory for both sides. Livestock experts say they can still use other antibiotic feed additives — so long as they are not designated for humans, while the science community said the restrictions will help reduce overuse. But there were those, including Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., a microbiologist, who said the new regulations don’t do enough.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who introduced her own legislation this year to ban widespread antibiotic use, called the FDA’s ruling a significant victory for public health.

“Antibiotics are the closest thing to a silver bullet in human medicine given their ability to wipe out a wide variety of bacterial infections, but with 23,000 Americans dying each year from antibiotic-resistant infections, we are in danger of losing the ability to fight certain diseases,” she said in a statement. “I believe today’s proposals are a critical first step in reversing this trend and will ultimately save lives.”

Over-the-counter drugs
Although farmers and ranchers will be allowed to treat animals with antibiotics for therapeutic reasons, they will now need a licensed veterinarian to authorize use of the drugs, according to the FDA plan. Currently, food producers can buy many of the drugs over the counter, and it’s commonly been put in feed and water for cattle, pigs and poultry as a prophylactic and to help the animals — especially ruminants — use their food more efficiently so that they can beef up faster.

“This is a win-win-win for consumers, regulators and the livestock industries,” said Michael Payne, a veterinarian and livestock pharmacologist at the UC Davis Western Institute for Food Safety and Security. “It is the result of close consultation by the agency, consumer advocates, scientific researchers, veterinary experts and the collective livestock industries. In a nutshell, implementation of this guidance will eliminate unnecessary production use of antibiotics in feed and place the use of antibiotics medically important to humans under the supervision of veterinarians.”

But Slaughter, who supported a bill to restrict antibiotic use in food animals, was less than impressed.

“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,” she said in a statement. “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.”

Pharmaceutical companies that sell antibiotics for animal feed are being asked by the FDA to change their labels over the next 90 days to say that the products can only be used to treat sick animals under the care of a veterinarian.

Voluntary changes
“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,” said Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, in a written statement. “Based on our outreach, we have every reason to believe that animal pharmaceutical companies will support us in this effort.”

The FDA plans to monitor the voluntary label changes over the next three years to determine whether they need to make it mandatory. Agency officials say they went the voluntary route to avoid the time constraints and legalities of product-by-product reviews.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, voiced concern over the plan, saying that “several loopholes could undermine progress.”

“Unfortunately, it requires the drug companies who profit from sales of their drugs to initiate the process,” the group posted on its website. “The good news is that the agency has pledged to evaluate levels of compliance and inform the public after 90 days if the drug industry is cooperating with the relabeling effort.”

State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, tried to pass a similar provision for farms in California in 2009, but it was shut down by a 20-15 vote.

— Reach Stacy Finz at sfinz@sfchronicle.com

San Francisco Chronicle

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