Antibiotics in Food Animals: FAQ (cont.)

The U.S. government in 1970 formed its own task force to look at the issue. Eventually -- in 1977 -- the FDA issued a formal finding that all animal use of penicillins and low-dose animal use of tetracyclines should be banned.

But the FDA never acted on this finding. Environmental groups filed a lawsuit to force FDA to act. The FDA asked for more time. On Dec. 22, 2011, the FDA finally withdrew its 1977 finding.

Meanwhile, in 1999 and in 2005 environmental groups filed citizen petitions demanding that the FDA ban non-health-related antibiotic use in food animals. In November 2011, the FDA issued a statement saying it was "concerned" about injudicious food-animal use of antibiotics -- but that the petitions were denied.

What is the FDA doing about its concerns over antibiotic use in food animals?

The FDA says it takes too long and costs too much to formally ban unwise use of antibiotics in food animals. Instead, in a formal response to the citizen petition to ban such use, the FDA said it would ask the food industry to voluntarily stop "production use" of antibiotics.

That strategy is outlined in an unusual "draft guidance to industry" issued in June 2010 but not yet made final. Entitled "The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals," the paper chronicles over 40 years of scientific and government reports linking antibiotic use in food animals to drug-resistant infections in humans.

The guidance stresses two main principles:

  • Antibiotics important to humans should be used in food animals only when necessary for the animals' health.
  • Use of these antibiotics in food animals should require the oversight of a veterinarian.

But the document makes it clear that the FDA expects industry to follow this guidance voluntarily. How has it worked so far?

The FDA tells WebMD that it hasn't worked yet because the guidance isn't yet final.

"There is no estimated time frame, but moving forward with strategies for implementing the recommendations outlined in the draft guidance is a priority for the agency," the FDA wrote in an email to WebMD in January 2012. "FDA intends to finalize the draft guidance (Guidance #209) in the near future as well as issue additional, more detailed guidance on implementing the recommendations."

Avinash Kar, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the environmental groups that had petitioned the FDA, is dubious.

"The FDA have followed the strategy of voluntary action by industry for the last three-and-a-half decades. We don't see it working better now," Kar tells WebMD.

The American Meat Institute, which represents the food-animal industry, declined WebMD's request for comment.

SOURCES: Stephanie Yao, FDA public information officer.Avinash Kar, staff, Natural Resources Defense Council.Eric Mittenthal, vice president for public affairs, American Meat Institute.FDA web site.WHO web site.Institute of Food Technologists web site.International Food Information Council web site.Natural Resource Defense Council web site.FDA: "The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals," Draft Guidance #209, June 28, 2010.FDA, letter from Leslie Kux, acting assistant commissioner for policy, FDA, to Sarah Klein, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nov. 7, 2011.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/9/2012