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FDA puts new limit on antibiotics in livestock

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Cows on Sally Angell's farm in Missouri eat feed without antibiotics. (Jessica Naudziunas/ Harvest Public Media)
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Senior Reporter

Frank Morris is the news director at KCUR in Kansas City and a senior contributor to Harvest Public Media.

The Food and Drug Administration is clamping down on the off-label use of certain antibiotics in food-producing animals. 

In an order published today, the FDA said meat producers can no longer use the class known as cephalosporins in ways not approved by the agency. While curbing use won’t change much in the meat industry, the order signals a bigger concern about antibiotics regulation, some farmers say.

There are around ten times as many drugs for humans as there are for farm animals. That means people who raise lots of animals, as quickly as possible, sometimes have to get creative.

Larry Hollis a beef veterinarian at Kansas State University, said cephalosporin antibiotics are useful in ways not spelled out on the label.

“Some of them are approved to for treating, say pneumonia in cattle, and yet we find that, let’s say in dairy cows they are highly effective in treating uterine infection, so that could potentially go away,” Hollis said.

But William Flynn, senior adviser for science policy for the FDA and also a veterinarian, said has seen a sharp rise in animals carrying forms of salmonella that the drugs can’t touch. 

“Bacteria are increasingly becoming resistant to treatment by cephalosporin class drugs,” he said.

That’s a big concern because this class of drugs is important in human medicine.  They’re especially valuable for treating children, for their respiratory infections, some skin diseases, and salmonella, a disease people often get from eating meat or eggs. 

Flynn hopes curbing their use will slow the development of antibiotic resistant bugs. 

But cephalosporins are just a tiny portion of the antibiotics used in American agriculture. Just a fraction of 1 percent. 

Growers do not add them to animal feed, as they do some other antibiotics. 

Brett Lorenzen, with the Environmental Working Group, said that kind of drug maintenance is necessary to keep animals alive in what he says are inherently unhealthy living environments.

“The analogy that most people understand, is when you fly on the holidays, you often come home with a cold.   You know you’re in a tube with a bunch of other people with four hours, with a closed air supply, and everybody shares whatever virus they’re carrying that week.   That’s how most of the animals grown in America are raised.   You know they’re in a closed building with 800 to a thousand other animals for their entire lives,” Lorenzen said. 

So, routine antibiotic use is built into a system that keeps meat, milk and eggs coming all the time, at lower costs than would otherwise be possible.  And that’s big business, not something that’s easy to mess with politically.

U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York, with a degree in microbiology, said the FDA has been lax on antibiotic use in farming for a long time.

“They knew in 1976 that they should not allow the use of penicillin and tetracycline… even though they’ve known that all this time they have not had the courage to eliminate that from farming,” she said.  

Meantime, she said, “superbugs” have arisen.   So Slaughter is promoting a bill that would clamp tougher restrictions on giving antibiotics to animals used for food.   

Hollis, the veterinarian at Kansas State, fears a different agenda.

“There are people who want to run animal agriculture out of business, and this is one of their ploys,” he said. “I mean if they can take away the tools we use to produce with, than they can take us out of production.”

The FDA has telegraphed that it wants to wean the meat, dairy and poultry industries off of antibiotics for animals that aren’t sick.   Many producers see that coming too, but caution that it needs to happen slowly, both for health of farm animals, and for the industry that produces them.