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Animal Antibiotics

Air Date: Week of

The FDA recently moved to ban two antibiotics from their use in the treatment of poultry diseases. There’s growing concern that agricultural use of these drugs has contributed to increased antibiotic resistance in people. Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on what regulations we can expect from the FDA in the future.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Antibiotics are routinely given to U.S. livestock to prevent illness, as well as to promote growth. But there's growing concern that this practice has led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are now infecting people who eat or handle meat. The FDA recently proposed a ban on two antibiotics fed to chickens and turkeys. It's the first time the agency has moved to ban any drug in order to combat antibiotic resistance. But as Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports, the proposal is just the first step in a review of all agricultural antibiotic use.

TOOMEY: The two antibiotics in question belong to a class of drugs known as fluoroquinelones [phonetic spelling]. They're effective against illness in poultry, but the Food and Drug Administration says this use has led to resistant strains of the bacteria camphlobacter [phonetic spelling] in those animals. In turn, the agency says those resistant strains have infected people who have eaten tainted meat. Camphlobacter [phonetic spelling] infection is one of the most common food-borne illnesses. But the overwhelming majority of antibiotics employed in livestock production are used not to treat sick animals, but to promote their growth.

Last year a number of organizations petitioned the FDA to ban from farming any drug that's used to speed up animal growth, but is also important in human medicine. The European Union instituted such a ban two years ago, but the FDA says it won't be taking a shotgun approach to antibiotic regulation. Rather, the agency will evaluate the risk to human health on a case-by-case basis.

The next drug the agency will look at is virginiamycin [phonetic spelling], used to promote the growth of poultry, pigs, and cattle. Virginiamycin [phonetic spelling] is chemically similar to a relatively new human drug called cynercid [phonetic spelling]. Cynercid [phonetic spelling] is used as the drug of last resort to treat life-threatening infections that are resistant to all other antibiotics. Some fear cynercid's [phonetic spelling] value has already been compromised because of the widespread use of virginiamycin [phonetic spelling] in livestock. The FDA says it plans to set up guidelines for future regulation at a meeting in January. At that point the agency will try to decide on a threshold of resistance, either in animals or humans, that would trigger the need to limit a specific drug's use in livestock.

But the FDA cautions banning some antibiotics as growth promoters may have unintended consequences. When used to help fatten livestock, antibiotics are given to animals in low but constant dosages. Take this away and there could be a rise in animal disease. And in order to treat those illnesses, farmers may turn more often to even more important human drugs. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.



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