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FDA changing course on antibiotics in livestock

Little River Farm, 1979. Yvonne Jacquette, American (Metropolitan Museum)

American farmers have been feeding antibiotics to their livestock (which includes cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys) since the 1950s, claiming that the practice keeps the animals healthier and enables them to grow faster.

Only 20% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to people who are sick with bacterial infections, such as ear and urinary tract infections and pneumonia. Most of the penicillin, tetracycline and other antibiotic drugs used in this country are given to livestock that are perfectly healthy.

Faced with increasing bacterial drug resistance world-wide, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been expressing concern about agricultural use of some antibiotics for decades and recently indicated that it plans to regulate a broader range of drugs than was proposed in the past.

This week the FDA announced that it is banning “extralabel” or unapproved use of cephalosporins in animals, beginning April 5, 2012.

“We believe this is an imperative step in preserving the effectiveness of this class of important antimicrobials that takes into account the need to protect the health of both humans and animals,” said Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods.

  • DJ

    Oh, perfect. Rather than address the problem of overuse, they apparently want instead to limit the freedom of veterinarians to use various drugs that have not been tested in all situations.

    I raise dairy goats. We use antibiotics sparingly, and the tolerance for antibiotics in milk for human consumption is zero so we are careful to ensure that all antibiotics are out of a goat’s system before we stop discarding their milk following treatment with antibiotics. But there are situations in which antibiotics are necessary.

    Extra-label use means that a drug has not been approved for use in a particular animal or situation. So, for example, when one of our does was sick with a mycoplasmic infection, the vet prescribed cephalsporin to knock out the infection. It was not approved for dairy goats, so our vet (based on the information available to her) set the dosage, duration, and withdrawal period, which we are required by law to follow. We kept her milk out of the production process for 40 days after treatment ceased. And the treatment saved that doe’s life.

    In 2010, our goats came down with what turned out to be BRSV, a bovine virus common in cows but almost unknown in goats. Guess what: there’s no vaccine for BRSV in goats. But a goat vet in CO (who happens to be married to a veterinary virologist) told our vet about an extra-label treatment using a vaccine for cows. Without that treatment, we would have likely lost our whole herd.

    If the problem is overuse, regulate overuse. But to take away options for veterinarians to treat illnesses, many of which (especially for dairy applications and ruminants other than cows and sheep) have no on-label options, is stupid, cruel to the animals, and unfair to the small farmers affected (You don’t suppose that big farms who overuse antibiotics as a standard practice could be behind this, do you? Naw…)

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