Challenges Ahead as FDA Updates Rules on Antibiotic Use in Agriculture

With new US Food and Drug Administration rules on antibiotics in agriculture taking effect at the start of 2017, challenges remain when it comes to the reduction of antimicrobial use in livestock.

With a growing tide of news reports and studies on new rules limiting antibiotic use in the agriculture sector, health officials in the coming months will be implementing big changes meant to reduce the impact that farming has on the development of antibiotic resistance.

Globally, new efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics in the fight against drug-resistant superbugs are progressing, with public health experts stressing the need to cut back on antibiotics in the livestock farming sector. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) leads outreach efforts on this issue in the United States, explaining the interplay of antibiotics, farming, and health to the public can be a challenge. For years, farmers have administered antibiotics to their livestock to prevent illness while making animals grow bigger faster, but using antibiotics on farms also contributes to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can be transmitted to people through the consumption of contaminated foods.

A recent Bloomberg news report highlights the challenge ahead for public health experts, farmers, and antibiotic producers. New US Food and Drug Administration rules set to kick in at the end of the year will require a veterinarian’s prescription to acquire antibiotics for farm animals, after decades of these antibiotics being available over-the-counter. Known as Guidance #213, the measure will limit the use of antimicrobials important to human medicine and remove language from veterinary antibiotic labels that advertises the drugs as growth-promoting. The Bloomberg report explains that pharmaceutical companies wary of losses are taking measures to protect their sales by reaching out to farmers and ranchers about how to use antibiotics in compliance with the new regulations, while also making a bigger marketing push in overseas markets, such as Asia and South America. By pitching their products in countries with fewer antibiotics regulations and reduced monitoring, the drug makers hope to offset the economic impact of the new rules in the United States. According to the FDA, antibiotic use in food-producing animals has accounted for more than 70% of all antibiotic sales in the United States in recent years, a rate that is trending down as food suppliers are increasingly eliminating the use of these drugs and promoting their products as antibiotic-free.

Marking this shift, the major American poultry company, Perdue Farms, has recently become the first chicken brand to eliminate the use of routine antibiotics in their production. With the tagline, “No Antibiotics Ever,” now prominent on Perdue products in several major markets, the company aims to communicate their new approach clearly to their customers. The percentage of chickens the poultry brand raised without antibiotics is now 95%, with antibiotics only administered to their chickens in cases of illness; in such cases, the birds are then pulled from the antibiotic-free poultry line.

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently analyzed the language from 389 antibiotic labels for compliance with the judicious use principles of the FDA’s Guidance #213. While the Pew report found that many of the medically important antibiotics for food animals were compliant with the new rules on antibiotic use, about 140 labels did not meet the new FDA standards. About three-quarters of those labels that were not in compliance were for brand name or patented drugs rather than generics. More than 100 labels were missing instructions on duration of use, 80 labels included indications not considered judicious under the new rules, and many labels had problematic dosage specifications. It is unclear whether some pharmaceutical makers will pull their affected products from the market altogether, according to the Pew report, or if they will just change the language on their labelling to reflect the new rules.

With the FDA responsible for working with farmers, veterinarians, and drug makers to oversee the implementation of Guidance #213, the coming months will mark a culmination of years of work to limit the agriculture sector’s impact on the growth of antibiotic resistance.