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  • Apr 21, 2014
  • Updated: 3:37pm
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HEALTH

US to phase out non-medical use of antibiotics on farms

US phasing out non-medical use of crucial drug that is losing its punch

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 10:21pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 December, 2013, 2:16am

In a major shift of food policy, the US Food and Drug Administration is phasing out the non-medical use of antibiotics on farm animals in an effort to combat growing human resistance.

The plan would push livestock and poultry producers to limit their use of antibiotics to treating sick animals, and to stop using the drugs to promote faster growth.

Farms consume about 80 per cent of the United States' antibiotics supply. Such frequent use has come at a price: antibiotic-resistant superbugs are on the rise. More than two million people in the US now contract drug-resistant infections annually, resulting in 23,000 deaths.

An outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella linked to Foster Farms chicken from plants in California felled nearly 400 people this year.

Health experts say reversing the national trend will require sweeping changes in farm practices, a shift that could alter the way meat is raised and potentially raise production costs.

But experts say the changes are crucial.

Farmers can just go down to the local feed shop and buy a bag of antibiotics
CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL

"We're heading into a world where antibiotics aren't working," said Laura Rogers, director for the campaign on human health and industrial farming for the Pew Charitable Trusts. "The new normal needs to be one where antibiotics are used as a last choice for human medicine and animal agriculture."

The FDA plan would finalise a strategy that requires voluntary co-operation from the drug industry.

The more than two dozen manufacturers that supply antibiotics to the meat industry are being asked to remove growth promotion claims on products that are similar to drugs used on humans. Known as medically important antimicrobials, they include popular drugs such as penicillin and tetracycline.

Drugs that have no such equivalents would still be permitted to promote growth. Experts say these drugs aren't linked to antibiotic resistance in people.

Critics in the US Congress as well as the National Resources Defence Council fear drug companies won't fully comply with the proposal, given that it's not a mandate. But the FDA said a ban on certain antibiotics would have resulted in exceedingly costly and lengthy litigation.

In a corresponding move, the FDA would also require livestock and poultry producers to get prescriptions to use medically important antibiotics on food animals. That puts the onus on veterinarians to evaluate individual farms to determine whether drugs are medically necessary, including as a preventive measure for disease.

"Right now farmers can just go down to the local feed shop and buy a bag of antibiotics and feed it without consulting with a veterinarian," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest. "So we are hopeful there will be some improvements just by getting the vets involved."

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