The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a set of guidelines intended to curb the widespread use of antibiotics for livestock, which contributes to the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria (see Nature‘s feature story ‘MRSA: Farming up trouble’). But some worry that the voluntary nature of the rules — and their many loopholes — will do little to fix the problem.
Pharmaceutical companies that choose to comply with the FDA’s new rules will change the labels on their drugs so that they cannot be used for promoting animals’ growth. A second rule requires the involvement of a veterinarian in prescribing the drugs. The rules were announced 11 December, and companies now have 90 days in which to tell the FDA whether they plan to comply.
In a phone conference this morning, Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the FDA, told reporters that some drug manufacturers have already said that they will adopt the rules. He indicated that after the 90 days have elapsed, the agency could find ways to crack down on individual companies that are not cooperating, even though the rules are voluntary. Laura Rogers, health director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says that agency pressure is not the only reason most companies will comply; companies also have an incentive in maintaining the efficacy of their antibiotics used in people. “Drug companies that sell these products need them to work just as much as we want them to work in human medicine,” she says.
If companies change their labels, prescribing the drugs for growth promotion will technically become illegal. But farmers will still be able to obtain the drugs and add them to animal feed to prevent disease outbreak. “FDA’s policy is an early holiday gift to industry,” said Avinash Kar, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, California, in a statement. “[It] covers only some of the many uses of antibiotics on animals that are not sick.”
Although she praises the new rule as a first step, Rogers says that the United States still has a long way to go before catching up with other countries. The Netherlands has reduced its livestock antibiotic use by 50% since 2009 by banning widespread prophylactic use, and Denmark monitors antibiotic use on individual farms.
Rogers says that it will be key in the coming years for the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture to monitor whether the laws affect the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food. She also wants the agencies to address other factors such as crowded housing conditions on farms that allow these bacteria to spread.