FDA cracking down on antibiotics in meat

New guidelines will help phase out the use of drugs for non-medical purposes (UPDATED)

Topics: antibiotic resistance, FDA, meat industry, Pharmaceuticals, ,

The Food and Drug administration issued two major industry guidance rules Wednesday that are the first steps in phasing out the dangerous use of antibiotics in meat, and hopefully forestalling the antibiotic-resistance apocalypse to which the practice is believed to be contributing.

Under the new guidelines, drugs used to treat infections (you know, the thing they were designed for) are OK — with a prescription from a veterinarian. Making them a standard part of the animals’ diets: not OK.

The major caveat, for now, is that the guidelines are just that — suggestions. The FDA is asking pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily revise the labels of drugs deemed medically important (meaning humans need them to treat infections) to keep them in compliance with FDA-approved uses, and to remove any claims about their growth-promoting capabilities. If companies sign on, the drugs will no longer be available over-the-counter. They’re being given 90 days to decide whether they’re going to go along with it, at which point we’ll be able to see how widespread the changes might end up being.

“Implementing this strategy is an important step forward in addressing antimicrobial resistance. The FDA is leveraging the cooperation of the pharmaceutical industry to voluntarily make these changes because we believe this approach is the fastest way to achieve our goal,” FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Michael Taylor said in a statement. “Based on our outreach, we have every reason to believe that animal pharmaceutical companies will support us in this effort.”

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More details on the guidelines can be found here.

UPDATED 12/11/2013 5:43 ET: Several groups have questioned the new guidelines’ ability to protect public health.

“FDA’s policy is an early holiday gift to industry,” said Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) health attorney Avinash Kar in a statement. “ It is a hollow gesture that does little to tackle a widely recognized threat to human health.”

According to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) the rules will only change the way antibiotics are labeled; not how they’re used or sold. “FDA does not need to rely on voluntary guideline,” CLF said in a statement, “It already has the regulatory authority to withdraw approvals to use antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention. FDA should use this authority to protect public health by withdrawing all growth promotion and disease prevention approvals.”

Lindsay Abrams
Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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