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Factory farms 'might' require vet approval for use of antibiotics

In order for drugs to be administered to people, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must give approval. The process for FDA approval is long and complicated, involving review by many different FDA scientists and completion of clinical trials. This process is critical to ensure that drugs that are ultimately used by people are safe.

Factory Farms

However, the same drugs are daily administered to farm animals to help them grow, prevent the spread of disease, and to cure illness. No FDA approval is required. No veterinary prescription is required. These same animals end up in grocery stores and are consumed by the public.

As a result certain antibiotics are losing their effectiveness and antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria are on the rise, causing a public health problem. For years health care professionals have warned policy-makers that the overuse of antibiotics have lead to the rise of resistant pathogens.

However, for years these warnings have fallen on deaf ears, particularly when it came to using antibiotics on farm animals. Now the FDA is listening... at least a little.

"Free for all" Antibiotic Use

To combat the problem of the overuse of antibiotics on livestock and the resulting negative impact on humans (such as cancer), the FDA proposes two major changes. The FDA recommends that farmers cease using antibiotics simply to help livestock grow.

Second, the FDA proposes that veterinarians must approve farm use of antibiotics that are commonly used as medication for people. In other words, farmers would have to get prescriptions to use certain antibiotics.

The use of antibiotics on livestock is not the only reason that antibiotics are becoming less effective. Many doctors over-prescribe them for their patients. However, the use on farm animals is a significant contributing factor. Some estimate that close to 80% of all antibiotics consumed in the United States are used on livestock.

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future reveals startling statistics related to antibiotic use on livestock compared to antibiotic use on people. In 2009 more than 10 million pounds of tetracycline was used on livestock. For the same year only 7.3 million pounds of not just tetracycline, but all antibiotics were used on people.

Many advocacy groups such as the Animal Health Institute and the National Pork Producers Council support these proposed FDA changes that seek to prevent antibiotic use on livestock for anything other than to combat an illness, as well as getting veterinarians involved in the dispensing of antibiotics.

However, many also feel that these changes will have limited effectiveness because they will not require farmers to behave any differently. Compliance will be voluntary. There does not appear to be any incentive for drug companies or farmers to comply. Indeed, with the massive amount of sales of these drugs to farmers, there are obvious financial reasons for drug companies not to comply.

Only Words... For Now

What the FDA will ultimately do remains to be seen as the FDA has only proposed these changes. Should these proposed changes become policy it is likely that debate on this topic will continue and the policy will evolve.

Instead of proposing rules that require only voluntary compliance, why doesn't the FDA propose mandatory rules since the problem impacts not just livestock, but the health of humans? Or do you think that the FDA's proposal is a good first step?

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