WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration is urging meat producers to limit the amount of antibiotics they give animals in response to public health concerns about the drugs.
The FDA said antibiotics in meat pose a "serious public health threat" because the drugs create antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can infect humans who eat it. The agency is recommending that producers use the drugs judiciously, limiting their use unless they are medically necessary and only using them with the oversight of a veterinarian.
"Developing strategies for reducing (antibiotic) resistance is critically important for protecting both public and animal health," the agency said in draft guidelines printed in the Federal Register on Monday.
The agency said misuse and overuse of the drugs has led to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotics have been given to animals to kill pathogens for more than 50 years, and the FDA acknowledged that practice has had "tremendous benefits" to animal and human health.
Of greater concern, the agency said, is when producers use antibiotics on healthy animals to speed growth and reduce feed costs. The agency is also concerned about antibiotics that are given continuously through feed or water to entire herds or flocks of animals.
The agency said it is expecting to issue more specific guidelines soon, but FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner of Food and Drugs Joshua Sharfstein would not say whether the agency eventually plans to issue stricter regulations. He said the guidelines are just a first step and the agency will be watching industry response and also patterns of antibiotic resistance.
Advocates on both sides of the issue criticized the decision.
Sam Carney, a pork producer from Adair, Iowa, and president of the National Pork Producers Council, said reducing the amount of antibiotics given to animals could harm their health.
"As we know, healthy animals produce safe food, and we need every available tool to protect animal health," he said.
But Steven Roach, a public health advocate with the group Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition dedicated to eliminating the overuse of antibiotics, said the guidelines don't go far enough.
"It shows the FDA still has no plan to take the necessary steps to protect public health by stopping the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture," he said.