Worried about the widespread use of antibiotics used in the raising of steer, pigs and poultry, and fearing the rise of antibiotic-resistant illness, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began the process of withdrawing its approval
for the non-medical use of penicillin
(scribd, posted by Wired magazine's Maryn McKenna in conjunction with one of her posts
on this issue).
That was in 1977. The FDA stopped pursuing the process, and antibiotics have continued to be given in feed. But a recent court order may allow the FDA to oversee a major change to the system.
In the last few years, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. have been purchased for agricultural purposes
, says a report from the FDA. Given to healthy animals, the drugs reduce the time it takes to get them to market weight and can prevent disease arising as a result of their living conditions; consequently, most of the meat and poultry in the U.S. food supply have been raised on antibiotic-laden feed. Sick animals receive extra antibiotics. These practices are common and widespread, even in the wake of a confirmed antibiotic-resistant, feed-related staph germ
that may affect half of the American meat supply.
In late March of 2012, Judge Theodore H. Katz of the Southern District of New York issued an order that potentially cleared the way for the FDA to rescind its approval of animal feed containing antibiotics
, and to continue the process it began in 1977. (More about the lawsuit at issue
. You can read the order here
; McKenna's Scribd posting, as above). The FDA may now compel feed makers to justify the safety of antibiotics, or it may rescind its approval for their use. A few weeks later, the FDA confirmed its stance: "Because it is well established that all uses of antimicrobial drugs, in both humans and animals, contribute to the development of antimicrobial resistance, it is important to use these drugs only when medically necessary."
In the same press release, it also explained its new proposed actions on antimicrobial resistance
: the implementation of "a voluntary strategy to promote the judicious use in food-producing animals of antibiotics that are important in treating humans."
It also published three documents in the Federal Register, in order to help agricultural producers understand its recommendations:
"A final guidance for industry
(.pdf), The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals, that recommends phasing out the agricultural production use of medically important drugs and phasing in veterinary oversight of therapeutic uses of these drugs.
"A draft guidance
(.pdf), open for public comment, which will assist drug companies in voluntarily removing production uses of antibiotics from their FDA-approved product labels; adding, where appropriate, scientifically-supported disease prevention, control, and treatment uses; and changing the marketing status to include veterinary oversight.
"A draft proposed Veterinary Feed Directive regulation
(.pdf), open for public comment, that outlines ways that veterinarians can authorize the use of certain animal drugs in feed, which is important to make the needed veterinary oversight feasible and efficient."
As far as shoppers are concerned, this may be an idea whose time has come. Consumers Union, which is the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, recently issued the results of its survey
(.pdf) on "what consumers think about reducing antibiotic use in meat and poultry production." Among the findings:
"[A] majority of respondents (86%) agreed that customers should be able to buy meat and poultry raised without antibiotics at their local supermarkets...
"The majority of respondents (see table) were extremely or very concerned about issues related to the use of antibiotics in animal feed."
It's worth noting that medicated feed isn't new. Dr. LeGear's Poultry Prescription
is one early example. Found, oddly enough, on the FDA's Flickr stream (and, as the FDA notes under this photo, "Dr. LeGear’s labeling of this veterinary drug from the early 1920s perhaps learned from the experience of its Hog Prescription
, seized several times in 1920 for misbranded claims to cure cholera and other diseases.").