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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The Food and Drug Administration announced a plan today to cut back the use of antibiotics on farm animals. If it works, within three years, pork and chicken producers will no longer use antibiotics to make their animals grow faster.

But NPR's Dan Charles reports, the plan has its share of skeptics because it relies on voluntary cooperation.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Pork and chicken producers use antibiotics to fight off disease, but also to help their animals grow faster and use feed more efficiently. The FDA's been worried about the overuse of antibiotics on the farm for decades. The reason is, the more these drugs are used, the more quickly bacteria in the animals will develop resistance to them. Some of these microbes can infect people, too, and then the antibiotics won't work.

Thirty-five years ago, the agency proposed banning the use of some antibiotics as growth promoters, then it withdrew the proposal. Today, Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for food, announced a new approach.

MICHAEL TAYLOR: We must find a practical and effective way to limit the use of these animal drugs to treating, controlling and preventing specific disease.

CHARLES: The FDA is starting some intensive consultations with the drug industry and veterinarians. The agency says it has persuaded drug companies to stop listing more efficient production as an acceptable use of antibiotics or antimicrobials in farm animals. And no drugs will be used on animals without a veterinarian in charge.

But all this is voluntary. The reason, Taylor says, is the voluntary route is more practical and effective than trying to legally ban hundreds of different drugs and defend each one in court.

TAYLOR: It's decades of effort and millions and millions of dollars in resources.

CHARLES: And we don't even need to go through that, Taylor says. The meat industry now is willing to limit its use of antibiotics only to what's really necessary to treat or prevent disease.

Scott Hurd, a veterinarian at Iowa State University and a former USDA official, says this voluntary approach will change farmers' practices.

SCOTT HURD: Because, even though it's called a guidance, essentially, people take it as the gospel and as the law, so growth promotion usages will go away.

CHARLES: Now, some people don't buy that. The Natural Resources Defense Council called today's FDA action make believe reform. Skeptics say the industry has shown little interest in change. Also, what's truly necessary use of antibiotics is a matter of interpretation.

Consider what happened in parts of Europe when the European Union banned the use of antibiotics for the purposes of animal growth promotion in 2006. Dik Mevius, a leading expert on antibiotic resistance at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, says meat producers there simply started using more antibiotics for what was still allowed, preventing disease or treating it.

DIK MEVIUS: So we saw a more or less doubling of those drugs that were used for therapy, so the total exposure of animals to antibiotics remains virtually the same from 1999 to 2007.

CHARLES: After that, though, and after lots of pig farmers realized they and their families were carrying antibiotic resistant strains of disease-causing bacteria, the Dutch government clamped down hard. Each farm now has to report how often it uses antibiotics for all purposes. Farms that used a lot are told specifically what they need to do to cut back. The government is funding lots of research into farming methods that don't require antibiotics and antibiotic use is now coming down.

Laura Rogers with the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming says the FDA may need to do something similar so the prescriptions aren't simply rewritten to call them disease prevention drugs.

LAURA ROGERS: The loophole that does remain is these uses of the drugs for prevention purposes and they are used in mass quantities, so that's really going to be where FDA's going to have to dig in.

CHARLES: The FDA says it will see how well this voluntary program works over the next three years. If it doesn't seem to be effective, the agency will have to try something different.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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