WASHINGTON Health regulators placed restrictions on animal use of a class of antibiotics often used to treat diseases like pneumonia in humans, as part of an effort to prevent the rise of drug-resistant bacteria.
The Food and Drug Administration issued an order on Wednesday to stop the widespread injection of cephalosporins into cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys beginning April 5.
Cephalosporins are commonly used to treat people with pneumonia and skin and soft tissue infections, the FDA said. They can also be used to treat foodborne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli.
Antibiotics in this class include cefprozil, the generic version of Bristol-Myers Squibb's Cefzil, and cephalexin, often sold under the brand name Keflex.
Scientists say overuse of antibiotics 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.
"We believe this is an imperative step in preserving the effectiveness of this class of important antimicrobials that takes into account the need to protect the health of both humans and animals," Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said of the cephalosporin decision.
Livestock industry groups argue that using antibiotics in animals keeps them healthy and does not have a direct link to resistance in humans.
The FDA order limits the use of cephalosporins to only sick animals, and only at approved dose levels. Consumer groups said this would prevent widespread "extralabel," or off-label use of the drug, such as in cases when farmers would inject all animals with antibiotics even if only one was sick.
The order does not limit the use of cephapirin, an older type of antibiotic in this class that the FDA said does not contribute to antibiotic resistance in people.
Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council trade group, said most antibiotics used in chickens, such as ceftiofur, also in the class of cephalosporins, are not used in people, so they would not create resistance.
"We share the concerns of others that FDA's rule on extralabel drug use will take medical decisions to treat animals out of the hands of veterinarians," he said in an email. "We question any substantive link or scientific basis between veterinary use of cephalosporins and antibiotic resistance in humans."
The FDA, which regulates the use of antibiotics in livestock, initially proposed limiting cephalosporin use in 2008 but withdrew the proposal, citing a desire to solicit more public comments and study more evidence.
"It's good that we're finally having this action. But literally thousands of people have been affected by these cephalosporin-resistant infections in the meantime," said David Wallinga, a physician at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a member of the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition, which had long campaigned to limit antibiotic use in animals.
The FDA had previously restricted the use in animals of another family of antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones, which includes Cipro, which was a key treatment in responding to the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States.
But Wallinga said the FDA has not limited tetracyclines or penicillin, which are the most common type of antibiotics used in animals and animal feed to promote growth.
(Reporting by Anna Yukhananov, additional reporting by Emily Stephenson; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Tim Dobbyn)