By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; A04
The Food and Drug Administration urged farmers on Monday to stop giving antibiotics to cattle, poultry, hogs and other animals to spur their growth, citing concern that drug overuse is helping to create dangerous bacteria that do not respond to medical treatment and endanger human lives.
Joshua M. Sharfstein, the FDA's principal deputy commissioner, said antibiotics should be used only to protect the health of an animal and not to help it grow or improve the way it digests its feed.
"This is an urgent public health issue," Sharfstein said during a conference call with reporters. "To preserve the effectiveness [of antibiotics], we simply must use them as judiciously as possible."
The FDA issued a draft of its guidance, and the public has 60 days to comment on the draft.
Sharfstein said that the guidance was a first step, and the agency would issue new regulations if the industry does not comply voluntarily.
"We have the regulatory mechanisms, and industry knows that," he said. "We also think things can be done voluntarily. We're not handcuffed to the steering wheel of a particular strategy, but I'm not ruling out anything that we can do to establish these important public-health goals."
The FDA has tried to limit the use of antibiotics in agriculture since 1977, but its efforts have repeatedly collapsed in the face of opposition from the drug industry and farm lobby.
But mounting evidence of a global crisis of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has propelled the government to act, said Brad Spellberg, an infectious-diseases specialist and the author of "Rising Plague," a book about antibiotic resistance.
"The writing is on the wall," said Spellberg, who teaches at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. "We're in an era where antibiotic resistance is out of control, and we're running out of drugs and new drugs are not being developed. We can't continue along the path we're on."
The European Union banned the feeding of antibiotics and related drugs to livestock for growth promotion in 2006.
U.S. farmers routinely give antibiotics to food-producing animals to treat illnesses, prevent infection and encourage growth. The drugs are often added to drinking water and feed. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent of antibiotics and related drugs used in the United States are given to animals.
Many of the same classes of drugs fed to animals are deemed "critically" important in human medicine by the FDA, including penicillin, tetracyclines and sulfonamides. In recent years, public health experts say there has been an alarming increase in the number of bacteria that have grown resistant to antibiotics, leading to severe, untreatable illnesses in humans.
Bacteria can transfer from animals to humans in several ways -- in food, through farm workers and through air, water and soil contaminated by manure.
The Animal Health Institute, which represents companies that make drugs for animals, said Monday that it agrees that antibiotics should be used in a "judicious manner." But groups on both sides of the issue lobbed criticism at the FDA's latest effort. Farming interests, including the National Pork Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, suggested the FDA needs more evidence before it dictates changes to long-standing practices of administering antibiotics to animals.
"Show us the science that use of antibiotics in animal production is causing this antibiotic resistance," said Dave Warner of the pork council. "How do we know [the problem] is not on the human side? Where is the science for you to go forward on this?"
Public health groups, however, said the agency's actions were too tentative.
"The policy is good, but you can't have a policy unless you have a mechanism to implement," said Steve Roach of Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of health and environmental groups. "Their hope is the industry is voluntarily going to go along. We don't believe people are going to act against their own economic interest because FDA asks them politely to do it."
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who has filed legislation to limit the use of antibiotics in agriculture, said FDA officials "have not gone far enough or moved fast enough."
"Scientists and public health experts have known for many years that these drugs were being overused by farmers," she said.