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FDA: Some antibiotics still OK for production purposes

Updated FDA guidelines that discourage the use of medically important antibiotics for promoting growth in food animals appear to have been well-received by both food animal producers and most consumer activists.

Change always brings misunderstandings and confusion, however — and the updated guidelines are no exception.

One growing misconception is that FDA-approved performance claims such as “increased rate of weight gain” and “improved feed efficiency” will be stricken from the labels of all antimicrobials used in food animals.

But that is not the case, according to Megan Bensette, health communication specialist for FDA. She confirmed to VFD News Center editors that performance claims would be removed only from antibiotics that FDA considered medically important to humans — tetracyclines, for example.

She emphasized that FDA’s actions were focused solely “on medically important antimicrobial drugs — that is, drugs that are also important for treating disease in people.”

Antimicrobials not on the FDA’s list of medically important antibiotics — bacitracin and bambermycins, for instance — will retain their performance claims under the agency’s updated guidelines, Bensette confirmed.

Still, the words “growth promotion” and the role these antimicrobials play in food animal production are often misunderstood, conceded Jon Schaeffer, DVM, at Zoetis.

“Do these antibiotics actually make animals grow faster and more efficiently?” Schaeffer asked. “Or is improved performance secondary to improved health that enables animals to reach their full genetic potential?”

For a long time, he explained, it was thought that subtherapeutic doses of in-feed antibiotics enhanced animal growth by modifying intestinal microflora, although exactly how isn’t known for sure and is still up for discussion. Explanations vary and have included a reduction in subclinical infection and depressed microbial competition for nutrients resulting in enhanced nutrient absorption.

There are other benefits to the continued but responsible use of the so-called performance antibiotics. By improving feed efficiency, consumers get the same amount of meat without requiring as much food for animal growth. That means less land use to produce corn, soy and other resources — as well as less manure output, which is better for the environment, Schaeffer said.

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