FDA Limits Use of Critical Antibiotics in Livestock

In a small, but helpful, move, the FDA announced it was limiting the use of a certain class of antibiotics.

January 6, 2012

Factory farms will be forced to clean up their acts, sort of, now that the use of one class of antibiotics has been limited.

The cramped, filthy conditions at U.S. feedlots, or concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs), breed numerous diseases in animals that require heavy doses of antibiotics to control—so much so that 70 to 80 percent of all antibiotics in this country are used on livestock. Thanks to a small step taken by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday, that percentage will start to drop.


The FDA announced that it is restricting the use of one class of antibiotics, cephalosporins, in all food-producing animals because of an increasing concern that their heavy overuse is contributing to antibiotic resistance in people and in strains of bacteria, including salmonella and E. coli. The drugs are commonly used in people to treat strep throat, urinary tract infections, and pneumonia, in addition to a wide variety of other skin and soft tissue infections. More than a few public-health officials have sounded alarms lately linking the heavy use of such antibiotics in animals to disease-resistant bacteria in people who raise and eat those animals.

Read More: Factory Farms Use 30 Million Pounds of Antibiotics a Year

"This is an important step, but it's just a first step," says David Wallinga, MD, MPA, senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, whose work focuses on the heavy use of antibiotics in agriculture. "It's significant because it focuses on such a critically important human drug. So any reduction in their overuse in animals is likely to keep them more effective for people who need them." He says the drugs are the antbiotic of choice for children, who are most likely to be effected by virulent strains of harmful bacteria.

Though the FDA's recent action isn't an outright ban, it does restrict the use of cephalosporins in "extralabel" applications that include disease prevention rather than treatment and use at unapproved dose levels. One of the primary uses of cephalosporins, Dr. Wallinga says, is injecting it into shell eggs to prevent salmonella, whether the eggs are infected or not—a practice that is not even prohibited under USDA Organic standards.

Read More: How to Buy the Healthiest Eggs

Cephalosporins are not the largest class of antibiotics used on animals. Of the 29 million pounds of antibiotics used in animals every year, cephalosporins contribute just 91,000 pounds to that figure. But Dr. Wallinga says that, in this case, numbers don't matter. Because they're delivered directly by injection, rather than in animal feed as other classes of antibiotics are, they pose a greater threat to antibiotic resistance. Injections of antibiotics directly expose bacteria to the drugs, increasing the likelihood that those bacteria will become resistant, Dr. Wallinga adds. "In essence, you're breeding resistance to the very antibiotic you want to use to kill the bacteria that are becoming resistant to it."

In a statement released after the FDA's decision, the CEO of the organic meat producer Applegate, Stephen McDonnell, said, "The Food and Drug Administration did the right thing in limiting the use of cephalosporins in food animal production, and I urge them to keep moving forward so that we can save antibiotics and avert a public health crisis."

"The FDA's work is certainly not done," Dr. Wallinga says. "It's never taken any antibiotics in animal feed off the market." In fact, this announcement comes as a strange about-face for the agency. Just a week before Christmas, the FDA withdrew a petition that would have allowed it to regulate the use of the two most commonly used antibiotics, penicillin and tetracycline, and instead asked feedlot operators to voluntarily stop using those drugs. Those two classes of antibiotics are used widely in animal feed to fatten up animals and promote growth so that owners can get feedlot animals to market faster.

Read More: Why "Antibiotic-Free" Meat Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

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