WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. regulators on Wednesday urged food producers to voluntarily stop using antibiotics in livestock for non-medical uses as part of a broad effort to prevent the rise of drug-resistant "superbugs."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said antibiotics should only be used under the supervision of a veterinarian to prevent or treat illnesses in animals. It asked companies to start phasing out the use of antibiotics for non-medical purposes such as promoting growth, and said that process could take three years.
The FDA had previously banned certain types of antibiotics, like cephalosporins, for non-medical uses in livestock.
The move to limit the drugs could affect large meat producers like Tyson Foods Inc, Cargill Inc and Hormel Foods Corp.
Some antibiotics are specifically approved for growth promotion because they have been shown to help animals better absorb nutrients in their feed, said Dave Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. They also keep animals from getting sick, he said.
Environmental advocacy groups have long argued that using common antibiotics like tetracyclines and penicillin in animal feed has contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans, known as "superbugs." Some groups said the FDA should make limits on antibiotics mandatory, not voluntary.
Scientists say overuse of antibiotics -- whether in people or animals -- can lead to bacterial resistance as resistant strains become dominant. Perhaps the most publicized antibiotic-resistant bacteria are the methicillin-resistant staphylococcus bugs known as MRSA.
"The new strategy will ensure farmers and veterinarians can care for animals while ensuring the medicines people need remain safe and effective," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement.
Michael Taylor, deputy FDA commissioner for foods, said veterinary oversight should ensure antibiotics are used properly and only when necessary, limiting resistance. Food producers have not had to consult veterinarians, since common antibiotics have long been available to farmers without a prescription.
A federal judge last month ordered the FDA to start proceedings to withdraw approval for the non-therapeutic use of some common antibiotics in animal feed, based on a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.
Wednesday's announcement was based on draft rules for antibiotics that the FDA issued in 2010, and was unrelated to the court ruling, the agency said. The FDA said it is still deciding whether to appeal the March ruling.
The court's decision would have made antibiotic withdrawal mandatory, and some groups criticized the FDA for trusting companies to stop overuse on their own.
"This is not an issue where trust should be the measure," said Richard Wood, chair of a coalition of environmental and other groups called Keep Antibiotics Working that pushes for measures to combat antibiotic resistance.
"This is an issue where the measure is whether or not the FDA has fulfilled its authority of protecting public health."
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter of New York, who has proposed legislation to stop misuse of antibiotics, also urged the FDA to do more.
The FDA said voluntary action is a faster process than banning all non-medical uses of antibiotics, which requires separate court hearings for every one of the couple hundred drugs involved.
"We think by virtue of the commitments companies have made ... we can get to that result over the next few years rather than litigating over the next couple of decades," the FDA's Taylor said.
Industry groups said producers have already started to cut back on antibiotics and to rely on veterinary supervision.
But some in the industry also criticized the FDA's decision, with the National Pork Producers Council saying it would hurt animal health and increase the cost of producing food.
"And the requirement for (veterinarians) could be problematic, particularly for smaller producers or producers in remote areas who may not have regular access to veterinary services," said council president R.C. Hunt, a pork producer from Wilson, North Carolina.
The FDA said it would work with smaller companies to help them comply with the recommendations.
Reporting by Anna Yukhananov, additional reporting by Chuck Abbott; Editing by David Gregorio and Carol Bishopric