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Several advocacy groups have asked the US Food and Drug Administration to “immediately” restrict certain uses of antibiotics in food-producing livestock, arguing that a voluntary effort will not mitigate growing resistance among humans to the medicines.

In a petition filed on Tuesday, the groups maintain that a voluntary FDA program — which was created three years ago — has not reduced antibiotic use in livestock, and they insist the FDA program “will not produce significant reductions in the future.” In fact, the groups argue that antibiotic use in food-producing animals has actually increased by 5 percent since the program was announced.

This is a contentious point because the medicines have been blamed for some 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And about 70 percent of antibiotics used to treat Americans are also used in livestock, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is among the groups that filed the petition.


In arguing their case, the groups seize on a subtle, but important, distinction between the use of antibiotics for promoting growth in livestock and preventing disease. Weight gain makes animals better suited for increased food production, but can also encourage unnecessary use of the drugs. And so, the FDA program is aimed at eliminating the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.

Yet many antibiotics that are approved for growth promotion in livestock are also approved by the FDA for preventing disease, and the groups argue the lines between these uses are not always clear. More than two dozen antibiotics approved for disease prevention are labeled to include maintaining weight gain in the event of certain ailments that may be vaguely defined, such as respiratory illness.


Moreover, the advocacy groups cite data indicating growth promotion accounts for just 10 percent to 15 percent of livestock antibiotic use. “By failing to eliminate disease-prevention uses, FDA’s voluntary program could leave in place the lion’s share of routine antibiotic use in livestock production,” the groups wrote in their petition.

“Until FDA takes mandatory action to eliminate not only growth-promotion but also disease-prevention uses of medically important antibiotics, livestock producers can continue to administer these life-saving drugs on a routine basis, promoting the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and threatening human health,” the petition stated.

“Our opposition is to giving antibiotics to animals before there are any signs of illness,” said Steven Roach, food safety program director at the Food Animal Concerns Trust, which also signed the petition. The groups noted that, in 2014, 62 percent of antibiotics sold for use in animals fell into a category the FDA deemed “medically important” for humans.

A spokesman for the Animal Health Institute, a trade group for drug companies that sell the antibiotics, wrote us that the “petition mischaracterizes the FDA policy, the way antibiotics are used currently and how they will be used after implementation by January 1, 2017.  We urge FDA to reject the petition.

“Veterinarians will not be able to order these products for growth promotion under the guise of prevention, as the petitioners imply, both because it will be illegal for them to do so and because the doses and duration of therapy are not the same as those that were approved for growth promotion.”

Under the FDA plan, drug makers are supposed to take final steps to remove language from product labeling that indicates antibiotics can be used for weight gain. The companies are also supposed to change stipulations that the medicines can only be used with veterinary oversight. These voluntary steps are supposed to be fully implemented by the end of this year.

In the petition, the groups also pointed to the Netherlands, where the use antibiotics in livestock did not decrease following an initial ban on only growth-promotion uses. But total use did fall by 59 percent after the country implemented other steps, including a ban on disease-prevention uses. As a result, they saw a drop in antibiotic sales for animal use of 56 percent from 2007 to 2012.

The petition was sent to the FDA just one day after the agency announced plans to seek “public input” on the best ways to determine how long some antibiotics should be used in livestock. Currently, there is no specifically defined time frame in which as many as 32 percent of the medicines should be given to food-producing animals, according to the agency.

Last spring, the FDA issued a final rule that will require drug makers to report the amount of antibiotics that are sold for use in different types of food-producing livestock. By collecting this data, the agency hopes to better understand exactly how the medicines are used by farms that raise hogs, cattle, chickens, or turkeys for human consumption.

This story was updated to include a comment from the Animal Health Institute.