osted on November 13, 2012 by Peter Lehner
Eighty percent of all the antibiotics sold in the United States are given to farm animals – not humans. Most of these animals aren’t even sick. It’s standard practice on factory farms, as a substitute for better management practices, to routinely dose healthy pigs, cows, and chickens with antibiotics that are vital for treating human disease. As a result of this non-therapeutic antibiotic use, these farms have become breeding grounds for superbugs–dangerous germs that can’t be knocked out with the usual medicines. And that puts human health at risk.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, where I serve as Executive Director, has been at the forefront of this issue. In response to an NRDC initiated lawsuit, twice this year a federal court ordered the FDA to take action. In March, the court required the FDA to withdraw approval for the use of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed, unless drug manufacturers can prove this practice is not a public health risk. In June, the court directed the FDA to reconsider its denial of two citizen petitions on antibiotic use in livestock, saying “The adoption of voluntary measures does not excuse the Agency from its duty to review the Citizen Petitions on their merits.”
Superbugs can travel off farms and contaminate the surrounding air and water, as well as our food supply, which puts people at risk of acquiring serious and even life-threatening infections. In 2010, almost 52 percent of retail chicken breasts tested by the FDA were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant E. coli. Drug-resistant bacteria have been detected in air and drinking water near industrial hog farms in three states. Drug-resistant infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including those generated by factory farms, have been estimated to cost Americans up to $35 billion every year.
The FDA has known for more than 30 years that antibiotic abuse on factory farms poses a risk to human health. In its March decision, the court determined that the FDA formally found back in 1977 that penicillin and tetracyclines had not been shown to be safe. In its June decision, concerning other antibiotics, the court pointed out that “the Agency has all but made a finding that the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in food-producing animals has not been shown to be safe.” Nonetheless, the use of penicillin, tetracyclines, and other medically important antibiotics in livestock quadrupled between 1970 and 2009. The agency has not stopped the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to healthy livestock, relying instead on “voluntary guidance” to address the issue.
The FDA has appealed the March and June decisions and remains focused on the failed strategy of allowing industry to use antibiotics as it chooses instead of standing up to protect public health. NRDC is fighting FDA’s appeals. Under an FOIA request, the FDA will begin releasing public health risk assessment documents on antibiotics to us. NRDC is also working with leading scientific organizations to keep public pressure on the FDA. Health groups from the CDC to the American Medical Association have spoken out against antibiotic abuse on industrial farms. Hundreds of thousands of citizens, including chefs, medical professionals, and progressive food companies, have called on the FDA to do its job and protect the health of our families.
It’s time for the FDA to follow the law and do its job. The agency needs to curb antibiotic abuse on factory farms and protect antibiotics for those who need them most–sick people.