WASHINGTON (Reuters) - To prevent development of drug-resistant bacteria that could infect people, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended on Monday that livestock farmers use the drugs solely to cure or prevent disease in animals, phasing out their use to promote growth.
FDA said research showed mixing antibiotics in livestock rations or feedlot water supplies "is not in the interest of protecting or promoting public health." Over-the-counter antibiotics have been routinely used for decades to promote livestock growth and feed efficiency.
Emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria poses a serious public health threat, said FDA, so it is looking for ways to reduce overuse of the drugs.
Antibiotics including penicillin and tetracyclines should be used only under the supervision of veterinarians to prevent or treat illness in livestock, FDA said in its 19-page draft.
FDA made its recommendations in a first-round version of a "guidance" document, which represents the agency's current thinking on an issue. Guidance does not carry the weight of law but generally is adopted by industry.
"We're not expecting people to pick up this guidance and change their practice tomorrow," Deputy FDA Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein told reporters.
"This is the first step in the FDA establishing the principles from which we could then move, if necessary, toward other mechanisms of oversight, which is regulation," he said.
A final guidance document will be written after FDA reviews responses from livestock producers, drugmakers and other interested groups.
New practices that limit drug use could affect major pharmaceutical companies that produce antibiotics used on farms such as Pfizer, Bayer AG, Merck & Co Inc, Novartis AG and Animal Health International.
An umbrella group representing drug makers said they welcomed the FDA's guidance and but want to ensure farmers and veterinarians can continue to get antibiotics needed to protect animal health.
An estimated 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are fed to healthy animals to promote weight gain, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Proponents of a ban on the use of antibiotics in livestock feed said the FDA guidance did not go far enough.
"The FDA has proposed good steps, but they have not gone far enough or moved fast enough," said Representative Louise Slaughter, chairwoman of the House Rules Committee, a New York Democrat who has led Congressional efforts on a ban.
Legislation is stalled in Congress that would ban subtherapeutic use of seven classes of antibiotics in livestock.
"It doesn't say when or how, but that's at least a small step in the right direction," said Laura Rogers of the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming.
The National Pork Producers Council said only a small fraction of antibiotics are used in hog production to promote growth, and there is no scientific link between livestock use and antibiotic resistance.
"Before you go restricting antibiotic use in food animal production, maybe you better find out, are we the main problem?" said Dave Warner, a spokesman.
The poultry industry said it already has ratcheted down "by a large margin" its use of antibiotics.
Bernadette Dunham, director of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, noted voluntary efforts to reduce antibiotic use and said, "We believe additional steps are necessary to have a real impact on this problem."
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Christopher Doering, Susan Heavey and Alina Selyukh