FDA Launches Voluntary Plan to Reduce Use of Antibiotics In Animals

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said today it is calling on the nation’s pork, beef, and poultry producers to reduce their use of antibiotics. But some watchdog groups say this voluntary guidance doesn’t go nearly far enough.

The issue has been contentious for decades. Just last month, a federal judge ruled that the FDA had to go ahead with a plan it proposed in 1977 that would ban the use of some antibiotics as a growth promoter in animals.

Farm animals in the U.S. actually consume far more antibiotics than people do in part because producers want to keep their animals healthy. But a big reason animals are routinely given antibiotics is that the drugs make them grow faster.

For years, the FDA has been saying that practice is both unnecessary and dangerous. It increases the chances that bacteria in animals will become resistant to drugs — and those drug-resistant bacteria can then infect people. But that hasn’t significantly reduced use.

Today, the FDA unveiled a plan aimed at ending the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. It’s the formal and more detailed version of draft guidelines issued in 2010, which lays out a roadmap for making it happen.

Rather than banning that use, the agency aims to collaborate with drug companies, veterinarians, and livestock producers.

That collaboration will be voluntary. The FDA says that will be a more effective approach, because an outright ban would get tied up in the courts for years.

Activists were divided on the FDA announcement.

“This is the most sweeping action the agency has taken in this area, as this covers all antibiotics used in meat and poultry production that are important to human health,” said Laura Rogers, director of the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, in a statement.

But Avinash Kar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says today’s action is a “make-believe” solution. He wrote: “industry is not required to do anything. This is an ineffective response to the real and sobering threat of rising antibiotic resistance, which threatens human health.”

The NRDC is one of several organizations that sued the FDA to force the agency to implement the 1977 proposed ban. That’s the lawsuit that the federal judge ruled on last week.

So stay tuned. Firmer guidance there may now be, but the long wrangle over antibiotics in animals is far from over.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.