Washington • The Food and Drug Administration has moved to limit the use of an antibiotic that is injected into livestock before slaughter, saying it could increase antibiotic resistance in humans.
While the action is limited to only one of several drugs used on industrial feedlots, it is encouraging news for public health advocates who have long pushed the government to force livestock producers to use fewer antibiotics, saying they are overused and could endanger human lives by building up resistance to the drugs. One main concern is the use of antibiotics in healthy animals to spur growth or to keep them well in unsanitary feedlot conditions.
The FDA said Wednesday it will restrict the use of cephalosporin antibiotics, which are given to some cattle, swine, chickens and turkeys before slaughter. The drugs are used to treat pneumonia, skin infections and meningitis, among other diseases, in humans.
Cephalosporins, which are directly injected into eggs or animals, are not as widely used as many other antibiotics that are mixed with feed in massive quantities. But they are significant because the class of drugs is so important to humans.
"This is an incredibly critical class of antibiotics for humans," said David Wallinga, a physician at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minnesota and a member of the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition. "In the medical world you'd call it a 'big gun' or a 'drug of last resort.' It's effective against a pretty broad spectrum of bacteria."
The FDA order is not a total ban, and the agency would still allow some uses of the drug in agriculture. Advocates praised the move but said it didn't go far enough.
"This is a modest first step by the FDA, but we're really just looking at the tip of the iceberg." said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., a microbiologist who has pressured the government on the issue. "We don't have time for the FDA to ploddingly take half-measures. We are staring at a massive public health threat in the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. We need to start acting with the swiftness and decisiveness this problem deserves."
FDA officials said in 2010 that antibiotics in agriculture pose a "serious public health threat" and said they would act on the issue, but they had taken no concrete steps to limit the drugs until Wednesday's announcement.