If the FDA concluded in 1977 that adding low-dose antibiotics used in human medicine to animal feed raised the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, why has it still done nothing about it? A suit filed by some health and consumer organizations says the FDA has not met its legal responsibility to protect public health – the practice of routinely adding low-dose antibiotics to animal feed has to stop, and the FDA has the authority to make it so.
Peter Lehner, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) executive director, said:
“More than a generation has passed since FDA first recognized the potential human health consequences of feeding large quantities of antibiotics to healthy animals.
Accumulating evidence shows that antibiotics are becoming less effective, while our grocery store meat is increasingly laden with drug-resistant bacteria. The FDA needs to put the American people first by ensuring that antibiotics continue to serve their primary purpose – saving human lives by combating disease.”
70% of all US antibiotic consumption is used up in adding low-doses to animal feed to make up for unsanitary living conditions and promote faster growth, according to NRDC. This practice has been steadily growing over the last six decades, despite the every-growing threat to humans of superbugs.
The antibiotic doses used in feed or water for turkeys, cows, pigs and chickens are too low to treat diseases – however, they are low enough for a significant number of bacteria to survive and build up resistance. These antibiotics, such as penicillin and tetracyclines, are used to treat humans too.
Health and consumer organizations are demanding to know why the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) came to the same conclusion regarding the antibiotic resistance threat a long time ago, but did not act on its findings.
The suit has been collectively filed by:
- Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
- Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)
- Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT)
- Public Citizen
- Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)
The aim of the suit is to force the FDA to act on its own safety findings – this would involve withdrawing approval for antibiotic use in animal feed for non-therapeutic uses. In other words, only allowing the use of antibiotics on animals when they are ill.
In a communiqué in its web site, the NRDC added:
“The suit would also compel the agency to respond to the citizen petitions filed by several of the plaintiffs in 1999 and 2005, to which FDA has never issued a final response, despite regulations requiring it to do so. The petitions requested that FDA take action to limit the use of antibiotics important to human medicine, such as those that doctors rely on to treat ailments like pneumonia, strep throat, childhood ear infections and more serious conditions. The lawsuit filed today would not affect the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals.
Margaret Mellon, senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at UCS, said:
“We’ve been fighting the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock for more than 30 years. And over those decades the problem has steadily worsened. We hope this lawsuit will finally compel the FDA to act with an urgency commensurate with magnitude of the problem.”
Several prestigious medical and scientific organizations have identified the use of low-dose antibiotics in animal feed as a major contributor to the rapid emergence of antibiotic-resistance bacteria in both livestock and humans. Examples include the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), The American Academy of Pediatrics, USDA (US Dept of Agriculture), WHO (World Health Organization), and the National Academy of Science.
Bacteria can become resistant to the overuse of antibiotics in farms – antibiotics also used to treat humans – they can eventually turn into superbugs. These superbugs can move from animal-to-human via direct contact, handling meat and poultry products, and environmental exposure.
When these superbugs enter humans that can be extremely difficult to treat, resulting in longer hospital stays and higher death rates. Studies have suggested that antibiotic-resistant infections are costing the US healthcare system over $25 billion dollars annually.
Drug-resistant traits that exist in one bacterium can sometimes be passed onto other species, some of which are extremely dangerous to human health.
Richard Wood, FACT executive director, said:
“Antibiotics are vital lifesaving drugs that have the unique ability to kill bacteria without harming the patient. When they work they truly are miracle drugs but when they fail the results can be catastrophic. Reducing antibiotic overuse is essential for making sure antibiotics will keep working for years to come. We can’t let these precious medicines be wasted so we can save — literally — a few pennies per pig.”
Several organizations around the world recommend that antibiotics that are also used in human medicine should not routinely be used by livestock producers for growth promotion. All 27 member nations of the European Union are already starting to act on this advice.
In 1998, Denmark banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in adult swine and broiler chickens. In 1999 it was banned for use in young swine. Since these measures were taken, Danish authorities report a significant drop in the number of cases of human superbug infections in the country. Denmark is the world’s largest pork meat exporter.
Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI executive director, said:
“FDA and Congress need to preserve these crown jewels of medicine and ensure that both current and future generations have working antibiotics when they need them. Simply improving farm practices would be an effective way of reducing farmers’ need for these precious drugs, thus protecting their effectiveness.”
Written by Christian Nordqvist