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FDA to limit antibiotics in farm animals with voluntary restrictions


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Scott Olson

The Food and Drug Administration is taking new steps to tighten rules on antibiotics in animal feed, but some say that the rules don't go far enough.

The agency asked the drug industry today to help limit the meat industry's access to antibiotics, more than 35 years after the FDA first proposed stricter rules on the drugs, the Associated Press reported

"Under this new voluntary initiative, certain antibiotics would not be used for so-called 'production' purposes, such as to enhance growth or improve feed efficiency in an animal," the FDA announced in a press release

The meat industry feeds antibiotics to animals because the drugs help the animals put on weight. But scientists have long said that overuse use of antibiotics in meat could cause humans to develop dangerous, drug-resistant infections. 

About 99,000 people die every year from antibiotic-resistant infections, the New York Times reported, and 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used in animals.  

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In 1977, the FDA made its first announcement that it would ban antibiotics in agriculture. But the powerful agriculture industry fought back, and the House and Senate committees were "dominated by agriculture interests" at the time, the Times reported. The FDA backed off.

Under the FDA's guidelines, the drugs can only be fed to animals when necessary to keep them healthy, but not to fatten them up. The FDA also asked that drug companies require a prescription before letting farmers purchase the antibiotics.

The rules are voluntary for now. Mike Taylor, the FDA Commissioner for foods, told the AP that he expects drug companies to follow the recommendations. 

Public health groups remain skeptical. 

In a blog post, the National Resources Defense Council described the new rules as an "empty gesture."

"This is an ineffective response to the alarming rise in antibiotic resistance, which threatens human health," the NRDC wrote. "The FDA is taking no effective action even as it acknowledges that use of antibiotics in livestock is a (growing) problem."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest agrees that asking the drug industry to voluntarily police the meat industry will not be effective.

“The [FDA] agency is afraid to use its authority,” a spokesman from the organization told the Times. 

Last February a new study found that antibiotics in meat had caused farmers to develop drug-resistant skin infections.