MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
Within three years, farmers will no longer be allowed to give animals antibiotics to make them grow faster or use feed more efficiently. At least that's the plan announced today by the Food and Drug Administration. Now, this depends on voluntary action by the drug companies.
And joining me to talk more about this is NPR's Dan Charles. Welcome, Dan.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Nice to be here.
CORNISH: So tell us the thinking here behind this FDA action.
CHARLES: So it's been a longstanding concern on the part of the FDA and public health advocates. There a lot of antibiotics are used in agriculture on poultry, cattle, pigs. And they're used in many different ways to fight diseases, of course, but also to make them grow faster or just use feed more efficiently. And the fear is the more you use antibiotics, the more you promote the development of drug-resistant bacteria.
So, the FDA is now moving to try to eliminate this one category of use, the use for growth promotion.
CORNISH: And this drug-resistant bacteria, meaning in the animals or in humans?
CHARLES: Well, that's the thing. You would create the drug-resistant bacteria in the animals, but there might be ways for those bacteria to move to humans and infect humans, either on meat or just through the environment somehow.
CORNISH: All right, so why not just ban it altogether? I mean, they're trying to get drug companies to eliminate this voluntarily?
CHARLES: Right. So this is a kind of an interesting commentary on the American regulatory system. The FDA is saying it would just take too long to make this change as a regulation. It could be challenged in court. Industry could sort of tie up for years and years. They're saying this voluntary approach is actually faster and, therefore, more effective.
So what they're doing is issuing a document they call Guidance to Industry. It calls on drug companies to change the labels on the antibiotics that they sell. For any antibiotic that's medically important in humans, the drugs would no longer list growth promotion or feed efficiency on the label as a permissible use; the plan is now the should happen in three years. So companies have 90 days to say whether they will actually do this.
The two biggest drug companies say they will and the industry association says it supports this.
CORNISH: So who would actually enforce this?
CHARLES: The people who would actually be on the ground, supposed control this, are the veterinarians. Right now, a lot of these antibiotics, farmers can just buy them over-the-counter; buy them and mix them into the feed. But the FDA is now moving to make all medically important antibiotics essentially prescription only. Farmers would only be able to get them and use them if a veterinarian signs off on it.
So the veterinarians are supposed to make sure this happens as, you know, according to the label. And if, I suppose, if the FDA caught a veterinarian who is violating this, the veterinarian could lose his or her license.
CORNISH: But help us understand here. I mean, will this really actually reduce antibiotic use in animals?
CHARLES: Honestly, whether this will be effective, I think remains to be seen for the following reason. Many of these same antibiotics can be used for growth promotion or for what's called disease prevention. Basically, if a farmer with a veterinarian thinks that animals are at risk of getting sick, he could still use the drugs.
So here's the question that a lot of people are wondering. Are farmers and veterinarians out across the country going to try to get around this? You know, just use the drugs the same old way and call it disease prevention. Because honestly I think they could, if they really wanted to. Or are they really committed to using as few drugs as possible?
And I've met farmers and veterinarians, some are very committed to reducing drug use and others are pretty cynical about these regulations. So it remains to be seen.
CORNISH: NPR's Dan Charles, thanks so much.
CHARLES: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.