The use of antibiotics in animal feed ― for non-therapeutic purposes, such as growth promotion ― will be phased out under a new policy announced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday.

“A public health imperative drives our actions today,” FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor told reporters attending a teleconference.

That imperative involves bacterial resistance to antibiotics used in human medicine.

While the overuse of antibiotic drugs in human medicine is part of the problem, Taylor acknowledged, their use in animal feed for production purposes has also been a “contributing factor.”  

The FDA will call on animal health companies to limit the use of antibiotics to treating, controlling and preventing specific diseases.

It will be a voluntary action on the companies’ part.

The FDA will also call on veterinarians to oversee the use of those products. The FDA wants a veterinarian to prescribe the drugs rather than allowing producers to access them over the counter. Already, the FDA is working to transition certain medicated feeds from over-the-counter status to veterinary-feed-directive status.

Several FDA officials stated at Wednesday’s conference that there has been a “sea change” in the drug companies’ attitude toward the issue since the FDA issued a draft guidance report in June 2010 suggesting that antibiotics be used judiciously and only when necessary to keep animals healthy.

Since June 2010, there has been “a very productive engagement” of the animal health and animal production communities and “broad buy-in that the time has come to make this shift,” Taylor said. 

Asked why they are taking the voluntary approach rather than an outright ban, FDA officials explained that a formal ban procedure would require evidentiary hearings in front of a judge for the numerous drug compounds. It would be a “lawyer-driven process” that could take decades to complete, they explained.

This should not come as any surprise to the veterinary and animal health communities. At last fall’s American Association of Bovine Practitioners annual meeting in St. Louis, William Flynn, deputy director for science policy at FDA, said the intention all along has been to promote “judicious” use. Read “Veterinarians’ role to grow in ensuring judicious drug use.”

"It sounds to me that it is the expected guidance we knew was coming," Steve Kopperud, government affairs counsel for the American Feed Industry Association, told Dairy Herd Management.

"It looks like they are heading in the right direction," he added. "It is critical this remains collaborative rather than a formal rule-making process."

A statement from the Animal Health Institute (AHI), which represents animal-health companies, agreed with the collaborative approach that FDA is taking with the various stakeholders.

"The veterinarian is critically important in animal care decisions and, ultimately, in protecting food safety and human health," the AHI said. "We strongly support responsible use of antibiotic medicines and the involvement of a veterinarian whenever antibiotics are administered to food producing animals.

"Implementation of this policy means all medically-important antibiotics used in animal agriculture will be used only for therapeutic purposes – disease treatment, control and prevention -- under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian. This policy will assure these medically important medicines are used in animal health in much the same way they are used in human health -- under the supervision of a licensed professional and only to address disease challenges at various stages," the AHI said.