Farmers' frequent use of antibiotics to help their livestock grow is contributing to the rise of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
On Wednesday, the government agency announced a new plan to phase out the use of certain antibiotics in the food production industry, CNN's Sanjay Gupta reports.
"It is important to use these drugs only when medically necessary," the FDA said on its website. "Governments around the world consider antimicrobial-resistant bacteria a major threat to public health."
Many of the antibiotics used in animals are also used to treat humans when they get sick. Illnesses caused by bacteria are more likely to be fatal if overuse has made the germs resistant to medication, the FDA says.
An FDA report released in April showed that 81% of all the raw ground turkey the agency tested was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And turkey wasn't the only problem - antibiotic-resistant bacteria were found in about 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef and 39% of chicken.
Antibiotics are used in livestock to prevent disease, but they are also used as a protectant and to aid growth. About 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold in 2011 for meat and poultry production, compared with the 7.7 million pounds sold for human use, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
"Antibiotic use in animals is out of hand," said Dr. Gail Hansen, a veterinarian and senior officer for the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, a project aimed at phasing out overuse of antibiotics in food production.
"We feed antibiotics to sick animals, which is completely appropriate, but we also put antibiotics in their feed and in their water to help them grow faster and to compensate for unhygienic conditions. If you have to keep the animals healthy with drugs, I would argue you need to re-examine the system. You don't take antibiotics preventively when you go out into the world."
The FDA will now begin working to address how farmers are using these drugs to enhance animals' growth or reduce the amount of feed they have to use.
Its plan also explains how animal pharmaceutical companies can voluntarily revise their drug labels to remove animal production as an approved use, effectively making it illegal to use the drugs for growth enhancement.
Under the plan, therapeutic uses of animal antibiotics would require veterinary oversight, meaning antibiotics could be used in food-producing animals only under a veterinarian's orders to treat, prevent or control disease.
"With these changes, there will be fewer approved uses, and the remaining uses will be under tighter control," said Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the FDA.
Companies have 90 days to let the FDA know if they intend to participate and three years to make the changes.
In a statement, the Animal Health Institute said it and its member companies support the policy and will continue to work with the FDA to implement it.
"We are in favor of maintaining the important therapeutic uses of disease treatment, disease control and disease prevention, and believe that phasing out sub-therapeutic uses will increase consumer confidence that antibiotics are being used wisely to protect animal health and thereby human health," the organization said.
The American Meat Institute also said it welcomed the move.