Tightened rules for antibiotics in food animals go into effect

Helen Branswell | OW Contributor | 1/12/2017, midnight
A new rule that aims to safeguard essential antibiotics for humans by limiting their use in food animals is now ...

A new rule that aims to safeguard essential antibiotics for humans by limiting their use in food animals is now fully in effect.

Under the Food and Drug Administration policy, antibiotics that have been designated “medically important”—in other words, they’re needed to treat people—cannot legally be given to healthy animals to speed their growth. The policy, three years in the making, required producers of agricultural antibiotics to change labeling on the drugs to make clear they should not be used for so-called growth promotion. All manufacturers agreed to abide by the new rule.

The policy also requires that from now on, food animals can only be given medically important drugs under the supervision of a veterinarian—a move designed to restrict their use to the treatment of animal illnesses.

An FDA report on antibiotic use in food-

producing animals released just before Christmas revealed that sales of medically important antibiotics rose by 2 percent in 2015, and that from 2009 to 2015 sales of these drugs to the food animal sector increased by 26 percent. The increased sales in 2015 could be the result of a commensurate rise in food animals produced—but critics of the heavy use of these drugs in agriculture note sales haven’t come down.

Although there are still loopholes that need to be closed, the new policy represents a major step forward, said Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, based in Washington, D.C.

“Before this came about, you could go to a veterinary feed supply store and basically buy an 80-pound bag or 100-pound bag of antibiotics without a prescription, whereas to get 200 grams of that would require a prescription for human use. And that did not make any sense at all,” Laxminarayan told STAT.

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Putting these particular antibiotics under the control of veterinarians will make it harder for farmers to use them. And it will increase the cost of doing so, something Laxminarayan predicted will discourage nonessential use.

“Anything that increases the cost of using antibiotics essentially will push manufacturers away from using antibiotics,’’ he said.

Scientists and public health professionals have long warned that the increasing use of antibiotics in the rearing of food animals such as chickens, pigs and cattle, and farmed fish and seafood is fueling a rise in so-called superbugs—bacteria capable of evading the drugs.

That puts at risk procedures that have revolutionized modern medicine. Organ transplants, cardiac bypass surgeries, even safe cesarean section births are an accepted part of medical practice but could become much more dangerous to perform, if superbugs continue to proliferate.

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A major report on the threat, commissioned by the British government and published last May, painted the situation in bleak tones.

Where about 700,000 a year currently die from antibiotic-resistant infections, that toll could rise to 10 million a year in 2050, it warned. Global concern about antibiotic resistance has surged to the point that in September the U.N. General Assembly held a high-level meeting on the issue—only the fourth time in the U.N.’s history that the General Assembly has considered a health issue.