(NaturalNews) On June 28 of this year, the FDA issued a draft of new guidelines urging meat producers to refrain from using antibiotics to promote livestock growth, calling the practice an "urgent public health issue."
"To preserve the effectiveness [of antibiotics], we simply must use them as judiciously as possible," said FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein.
The livestock industry regularly gives antibiotics to healthy animals to make them gain more weight faster, as well as to prevent infection. For more than 30 years, public health experts have warned that this practice is contributing to the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria, including strains that can infect humans.
"We are seeing the emergence of multidrug-resistant pathogens," Sharfstein said. "FDA believes overall weight of evidence supports the conclusion that using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production purposes is not appropriate."
In order to preserve the effectiveness of "medically important" antibiotics, including penicillin, tetracyclines and sulfonamides, the FDA issued new guidelines reiterating that antibiotics should be given to food animals only for health-protection purposes, and that veterinarians should oversee all such drug use, from selection to treatment.
"Using medically important antimicrobial drugs as judiciously as possible is key to minimizing resistance development and preserving the effectiveness of these drugs as therapies for humans and animals," said Bernadette Dunham, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.
The draft guidance will be open for public comment for 60 days before becoming official agency policy. Although the FDA technically has the authority to ban any veterinary use of antibiotics that it deems inappropriate, the agency is taking a more cautious path -- voluntary guidelines -- in the hopes of avoiding a battle with lawmakers and the food industry. Prior FDA attempts to regulate agricultural antibiotic use have all been blocked by Congress.
The European Union banned growth-promoting uses of antibiotics in livestock in 2006.
"We are not expecting people to change tomorrow," Sharfstein said. "This is the first step in FDA establishing principles from which we could move to other steps, such as oversight. This does not tell people what to do, it establishes principles and tells people how to achieve those principles."
Nevertheless, the threat of mandatory regulations is an obvious subtext to the FDA's newest move.
"We have the regulatory mechanisms, and industry knows that," Sharfstein said.
The FDA's move reflects the growing concern among public health experts about the growing prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
"The development of resistance to this important class of drugs, and the resulting loss of their effectiveness as antimicrobial therapies, poses a serious public health threat," the FDA's draft guidance statement reads.
It is estimated that 100,000 people die in the United States every year just from drug-resistant infections acquired inside hospital settings. The overall number of deaths caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria is likely much higher.
"The writing is on the wall," said infectious disease specialist Brad Spellberg of the University of California-Los Angeles, author of Rising Plague.
"We're in an era where antibiotic resistance is out of control, and we're running out of drugs and new drugs are not being developed," he said. "We can't continue along the path we're on."
The National Pork Producers Council fired back at the FDA, saying the guidelines would be an unduly heavy burden without good cause.
"There is no scientific study linking antibiotic food use in food animal production with antibiotic resistance," the council said.
"[That is] patently untrue," responded Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "There is a mountain of studies linking the use of antibiotics in animals to the evolution of resistant pathogens that cause human disease."
Because many bacteria can transfer between human animals, and because many of the same drugs to treat humans are also used on livestock, health advocates have singled out agricultural antibiotic use as an area of major concern. According to the Union for Concerned Scientists, 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States in 2001 went to livestock for growth-promotion purposes, while another 14 percent went to animals for disease prevention or treatment.
The industry trade group, the Animal Health Institute, has disputed this figure, claiming that only 13 percent of agricultural antibiotics are used for growth promotion, with much of the remainder used for illness prevention -- a use that is not addressed by the new guidance. This has raised concerns that even if the FDA implemented an obligatory ban, the industry could sidestep it by reclassifying its antibiotic use without changing its practices.
Poor diets and cramped living conditions produce abnormally high infection rates among factory-farmed animals. To maintain the increased profits associated with factory farming without bearing the associated health costs, many farmers simply dose their animals with antibiotics as a preventive tactic.
"[Even] under the FDA's proposed guidelines, agribusiness could continue to routinely feed antibiotics to entire flocks or herds to prevent illnesses they may never encounter," wrote Pew Health Group Managing Director Shelley Hearne in a letter to the New York Times.
"This approach to prevention would never be allowed in human medicine, and it should not be allowed in animals."
Health and consumer groups expressed disappointment at the FDA's statement and called for an outright ban on all agricultural antibiotic use except for the treatment of illness.
"I was expecting an action plan. I was disappointed that all we have here are principles," Mellon said. "They're apparently expecting voluntary action. It's my belief that the industry's not going to act until it has to."