When public health talks in the U.S. turn to antibiotic resistance, the conversation invariably leads to the use of antibiotics in food animals. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has confirmed that 80 percent of antibacterial drugs in the U.S. are sold for agricultural use. And Department of Agriculture (DOA) surveys have found that 83 percent to 84 percent of swine farms, cattle feedlots and sheep farms administer antimicrobials in feed or water, which can lead to inconsistent dosing. Many of those drugs are identical or closely related to human drugs.
In newly released voluntary guidance likely to significantly limit such use of antimicrobial drugs, the FDA cites numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies, along with a host of reports dating back to 1969 from groups including the World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine, suggesting a relationship between the injudicious use of antibiotics in food-producing animals and antibiotic resistance.
The FDA’s April guidance eliminates all nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics in food-producing animals, limiting use to what is “considered necessary for assuring animal health,” which it specifically limits to treatment, control and prevention. It also directs that antimicrobials—which for decades have been available over-the-counter to livestock producers—now should be used only with veterinary oversight or consultation.
The FDA calls for veterinarians to supervise use of antibiotics that go into animal feed and requires a statement from them stipulating details of use—how long it is given, how much is administered and how it’s distributed among herds, for example. “It becomes very cumbersome, almost tedious,” Minahan says of the process. Livestock producers fear their operating costs will grow substantially because of an increased need for veterinary oversight. What’s more, Minahan says, the increased demand for veterinary supervision could cause a shortage of care. In many regions, large-animal veterinarians are hard to find in the first place.