WASHINGTON — Citing a potential threat to public health, the Food and Drug Administration is taking steps toward phasing out the use of some antibiotics in animals processed for meat.
Many cattle, hog and poultry producers give their animals antibiotics regularly to ensure that they are healthy and to make the animals grow faster. Now, the agency has announced that it will ask pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily stop labeling drugs important for treating human infection as acceptable for that growth promotion in animals.
If the companies sign on — and one major company has already said it will — using those antibiotics to promote growth in animals would be illegal. Prescriptions would be required to use the drugs for animal illnesses.
The FDA has been debating how to address the issue of antibiotics in meat for several years as consumers have become more aware of the issue and are clamoring for antibiotic-free meat. McDonald's, among other companies, has moved to limit the drugs in its meat, pushing many animal producers to go along.
The FDA move is designed to limit antibiotic-resistant diseases in humans. Repeated exposure to antibiotics can lead germs to become resistant to a drug so that it is no longer effective in treating a particular illness.
Antibiotic resistance is a growing public health problem. In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released sobering estimates that more than 23,000 people a year are dying from drug-resistant infections.
The biggest risk is from germs spread in hospitals, and it's not clear how much of the problem is related to the use of drugs in meat. Still, the FDA says this is one step toward decreasing resistance.
"We need to be selective about the drugs we use in animals and when we use them," said William Flynn of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "Antimicrobial resistance may not be completely preventable, but we need to do what we can to slow it down."
The new guidance will give the companies three years to comply.