(CBS/AP) Citing concerns over potentially deadly strains of drug-resistant bacteria, the Food and Drug Administration called on pharmaceutical companies Wednesday to help limit the use of antibiotics given to farm animals.
It's a decades-old practice, in which antibiotics are mixed with animal feed to help livestock, pigs and chickens put on weight and stay healthy in crowded barns. Scientists have warned that this routine use leads to the growth of antibiotic-resistant germs that can be passed to humans.
The FDA has struggled for decades with how to tackle the problem because the powerful agriculture industry says the drugs are a key part of modern meat production.
Under the new FDA guidelines, the agency recommends antibiotics be used "judiciously," or only when necessary to keep animals healthy. The agency also wants to require a veterinarian to prescribe the drugs. Currently livestock antibiotics can be purchased by farmers over-the-counter.
"Now you have a veterinarian who will be consulting and providing advice to these producers, and we feel that is an important element to assure that they are in fact using these drugs appropriately," said William Flynn, a deputy director in FDA's veterinary medicine center.
The draft recommendations by the FDA are not binding, and the agency is asking for drug manufacturers' cooperation to put the limits in place. Drug companies would need to adjust the labeling of their antibiotics to remove "production uses," which include increased weight gain and accelerated growth. Those production uses help farmers save money by reducing feed costs. The FDA hopes drugmakers will phase out that language within three years.
The FDA's voluntary approach was met with skepticism by some public health advocates, who said they do not trust the drug industry to restrict its own products.
"This is not an issue where trust should be the measure," said Richard Wood, Chair of the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition, in a statement. "This is an issue where the measure is whether or not the FDA has fulfilled its authority of protecting public health."
But a formal ban would have required individual hearings for each drug which could take decades, FDA officials said.
"The process we would have to go through is a formal hearing process, product-by-product that is extremely cumbersome," said Mike Taylor, FDA Commissioner for foods. "There's no point in going through those legalistic proceedings when companies are willing to make this shift voluntarily."
Taylor said the FDA has consulted closely with animal drugmakers, and expects them to support the measures.
The debate over antibiotics has long pitted the benefits for producing safe, low-cost meat against the risk of contributing to dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can infect humans. In its guidelines Wednesday, the FDA said the benefits for meat production do not warrant overuse of the drugs.
"FDA believes that using medically important antimicrobial drugs to increase production in food-producing animals is not a judicious use," the agency states.
The rollout from FDA comes at an unusual time in the agency's attempts to curb antibiotic use in animals. Last month a federal court judge ordered the agency to take action on its own 35-year-old rule that would have banned non-medical use of two popular antibiotics, penicillin and tetracycline, in farm animals,
CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reported the controversy dates back to 1977 when the FDA determined the practice of fattening up animals with antibiotics could lead to resistant bacteria in humans. The FDA however never took action, which lead to several lawsuits.
Four public safety groups sued the agency to act on the regulation, winning the case handed down in the U.S. District Court of Southern New York on March 22. The agency was given 60 days to appeal the decision.
The waning effectiveness of antibiotics has been a global health concern for several decades as more deadly forms of malaria and staph infections present, attracting the attention of the World Health Organization, the Institute of Medicine and other health groups. World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan recentlyif the trend continues, "Things as common as strep throat or a child's scratched knee could once again kill."
Experts say overuse of antibiotics in both animals and humans has contributed to the problem. Both medical societies and government agencies have launched educational programs designed to educate physicians on appropriate prescribing of antibiotics.