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The Salt
12:11 pm
Fri December 23, 2011

Feds Trash Old Proposal on Animal Antibiotics

Have you ever come across a dust-covered "to-do" list, filled with tasks that you never actually finished because they were unpleasant, you just weren't in the mood, or you found something easier to do instead?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has one of those lists. It's 34-years-old. And the agency decided this week to throw it in the garbage.

The job on that list involves restricting the practice of feeding antibiotics to healthy pigs or chickens so that they grow faster or don't get sick as often. Scientists worry that such casual use of antibiotics has fostered the growth of bacteria that are resistant to those antibiotics.

This year has seen a number of outbreaks of human illness linked to penicillin-resistant Salmonella, forcing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to recall many thousands of pounds of meat. There was the ground beef recall this month, and earlier this year, there were two recalls of ground turkey after more than 77 people were sickened by the antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Way, way, back in the 1970s, the agency grew increasingly concerned about this. In 1977, in the early days of Jimmy Carter's administration, the FDA took a first formal step toward stopping the use of antibiotics in animal feed. It put out a "notice of opportunity for a hearing" on a proposal to ban or severely restrict such use of penicillin and tetracycline.

Then things stalled. The hog and poultry industry protested. There were calls for more research, which continues to this day. Different administrations, with different priorities, came and went.

The current leaders of the FDA have adopted a different approach. It involves persuasion, rather than regulation. In 2010, the agency put out "draft guidance" on the use of antibiotics in agriculture that calls for using these drugs only when they are necessary to keep animals healthy.

But the 1977 proposal remained on the books, until yesterday. In the quiet days before Christmas, the agency published a notice in the Federal Register saying that it was formally withdrawing that proposed regulation.

In those announcement, the FDA insisted that it "continues to view antimicrobial resistance as a significant public health issue." But others, such as the Campaign to End Antibiotic Overuse and Avinash Kar of the Natural Resources Defense Council were outraged.

"FDA's action today is nothing more than bureaucratic maneuvering in the face of the lawsuit," that NRDC and other filed earlier this year to get the FDA to withdraw approval for most non-therapeutic uses of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed, Kar wrote this week.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.