In a move to address growing concerns about human resistance to antibiotics, the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday it plans to phase out the non-medical use of antibiotics on food animals.
The plan would rein in what's believed to be decades of widespread use of antibiotics on farms to promote faster growth in livestock and pre-empt disease in confined and unsanitary conditions. Farms consume about 80 percent of the nation's antibiotics supply, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
There has been a price for that use. Every year nearly 2 million Americans develop hospital-acquired infections, resulting in 99,000 deaths, largely because of antibacterial-resistant pathogens, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Earlier this year, an outbreak of salmonella linked to Foster Farms chicken in Central California was found to be resistant to some antibiotics -- hospitalizing an unusually high number of the nearly 400 people who were sickened.
With the plan announced Wednesday, the FDA is asking the more than two dozen drug companies that supply antibiotics to the meat industry to remove growth-promotion claims on products that have dual use with human medicine -- drugs such as penicillin and tetracycline.
Antibiotics for animals will then require a prescription from a veterinarian in order to limit their use to medical necessity.
"Implementing this strategy is an important step forward in addressing antimicrobial resistance," said Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.
"The FDA is leveraging the cooperation of the pharmaceutical industry to voluntarily make these changes because we believe this approach is the fastest way to achieve our goal. Based on our outreach, we have every reason to believe that animal pharmaceutical companies will support us in this effort."
Skeptics say it remains to be seen if drug companies will volunteer to relabel their products. The companies have three months to notify the FDA if they are on board with the plan.
"The FDA's voluntary guidance is an inadequate response to the overuse of antibiotics on the farm with no mechanism for enforcement and no metric for success," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. "Sadly, this guidance is the biggest step the FDA has taken in a generation to combat the overuse of antibiotics in corporate agriculture, and it falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis."
The proposed rule is open for public comment for 90 days starting Thursday.