WASHINGTON - The Food and Drug Administration urged farmers Monday to stop giving antibiotics to cattle, poultry, hogs and other animals to spur their growth, citing concern that drug overuse is helping to create dangerous bacteria that do not respond to medical treatment and endanger human lives.
Joshua Sharfstein, FDA's principal deputy commissioner, said antibiotics should be used only to protect the health of an animal and not to help it grow or improve the way it digests its feed.
"This is an urgent public health issue," he said. "To preserve the effectiveness [of antibiotics], we simply must use them as judiciously as possible."
The FDA issued a draft of its guidance, and the public has 60 days to comment. Sharfstein said that the guidance was a first step, and the agency would issue new regulations if the industry does not comply voluntarily.
The FDA has tried to limit the use of antibiotics in agriculture since 1977, but its efforts have repeatedly collapsed in the face of opposition from the drug industry and farm lobby.
But mounting evidence of a global crisis of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has propelled the government to act, said Brad Spellberg, an infectious-diseases specialist and the author of "Rising Plague," a book about antibiotic resistance.
U.S. farmers routinely give antibiotics to animals to treat illnesses, prevent infection and encourage growth.
Many of the same classes of drugs fed to animals are deemed "critically" important in human medicine by the FDA, including penicillin. Public health experts say there has been an alarming increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, leading to severe, untreatable illnesses in humans.