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Will voluntary compliance reduce antibiotic use in farm animals?

The FDA is asking for a reduction in the use of medically relevant antibiotics (those used for human health) in farm animals, the largest use of antimicrobials in the U.S. Currently, farmers can purchase antibiotics over-the-counter without a prescription from a veterinarian, and they do so not only to treat sick animals but also to promote their growth and to prevent disease altogether. The CDC recently reported on the rapid rise of antibiotic resistance and detailed more than a dozen drug-resistant pathogens that pose a serious health risk.

To mitigate the rising antibiotic resistance, the FDA is asking for more veterinary oversight on farms (aka, use of prescriptions) and wants to eliminate using antibiotics for non-medically relevant uses, such as growth promotion. The agency hopes that these changes will be implemented voluntarily, where drug companies will restrict the permissible uses of medically relevant antibiotics on their labels on their own. On their website, the FDA explains that "initiating regulatory action would require that the agency proceed on a product by product basis, would likely create significantly more disruption to animal health/agriculture industry, and would require significantly more resources and time to implement."

These measures are not perfect and represent a starting point. In a New York Times article, several interviewees attributed their skepticism of the FDA proposal to the fact that farmers will still be able to use these antibiotics to prevent disease. Without restricting antibiotics to treating disease retroactively, and not preventatively, farmers' use of antibiotics might not actually decline. "Antibiotic use only declined in countries like the Netherlands that instituted limits on total use and fines for noncompliance," Representative Louise M. Slaughter said in the NYT article.

And although two of the biggest antibiotics producers, Zoetis and Elanco, have voluntarily agreed to comply, their cooperation may be emblematic of a belief that antibiotic use will not actually decline. "We believe the impact of the FDA Guidances and VFD on our revenues will not be significant," said Elinore White, the Senior Director of Corporate Communications for Zoetis, in Forbes.

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