(Beyond Pesticides, May 27, 2011) A coalition of environmental and public health groups filed a lawsuit yesterday against the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require the agency to enforce strict standards regarding the routine use of antibiotics in livestock feed. The suit, filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls on FDA to implement regulations based on its own findings that the routine use of low doses of antibiotics in animal feed presents increased risk for the development of resistant bacteria.
The non-therapeutic use of antibiotic drugs in animal feed presents a serious risk to public health due to the potential for bacteria to develop resistance to the drugs as a result of repeated low dose exposure. The rise of drug-resistant infections in humans has been linked to the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed since the early 1970s, but FDA has failed to meet its legal responsibility to address the mounting health threat posed by the practice, according to the groups’ suit.
The coalition’s suit would also force the agency to respond to citizen petitions filed by several of the plaintiffs in 1999 and 2005, to which the FDA has never issued a final response, despite regulations requiring it to do so. The two petitions requested that the FDA take action to limit the use of antibiotics important to human medicine, such as those that doctors rely on to treat ailments such as pneumonia, strep throat and childhood ear infections, as well as more serious conditions. The lawsuit would not affect the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals.
It is estimated that approximately 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S., primarily penicillin and tetracycline, are given to healthy farm animals at low doses to promote faster growth and compensate for unsanitary living conditions””a practice that has increased over the past 60 years despite evidence that it breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria dangerous to humans. The antibiotics, mixed into feed or water for pigs, cows, chicken and turkeys, are used at levels too low to treat disease, leaving surviving bacteria stronger and resistant to medical treatment.
FDA concluded in 1977 that feeding animals low doses of certain antibiotics used in human medicine could promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria capable of infecting people. Despite this conclusion and laws requiring that the agency act on its findings, FDA failed to take any action to protect human health.
The American Medical Association (AMA), World Health Organization (WHO), Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and hundreds of other organizations have recommended that livestock producers be prohibited from using antibiotics for growth promotion if those antibiotics also are used in human medicine. Many nations, including all 27 member states of the European Union, already have taken action on these recommendations.
The American National Academy of Sciences estimated in 1999 that if similar steps were taken in the United States to eliminate all non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock, it would cost grocery shoppers less than $10 annually. That’s less than $1.25 per month in today’s dollars.
Bacteria which survive exposure to treatment with an antibiotic drug serve as the basis for succeeding generations which will inherit the resistance genes, and the process will continue, until the entire bacterial population has evolved to resist the effects of a certain antibiotic treatment. The process is most likely to occur when bacteria are repeatedly exposed to low doses of antibiotics, killing or harming a small amount, but leaving the rest to develop immunity. Putting antimicrobials, such as triclosan, in soaps or antibiotics in animal feed results in precisely these kinds of low dose exposures which put the general public at risk of untreatable infection.
The strongest regulatory action in this country against the use of antibiotics for non-medical uses has been in organic agriculture. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic standards, producers of organic livestock cannot use antibiotics in any form, with the exception of limited emergency situations when they are needed to save an animal’s life. Regulatory prohibition is beside the point, however. One of the reasons that conventional livestock producers feel they need to feed their animals antibiotics is that the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which the animals are housed in these operations present the perfect breeding ground for disease. Organic producers do not house their animals this way, and so the prophylactic use of antibiotics is largely unnecessary.
Currently, organic fruit producers growing apples and pears are allowed to use the antibiotics streptomycin and tetracycline to control a fruit tree disease called fire blight. However, at the recent Spring meeting of the National Organic Standards Board, it was determined that this use is inconsistent with organic production principles and presents an unnecessary risk to public health. Accordingly, the board voted to completely ban antibiotics from organic production within the next three years, with a final expiration date of October 21, 2014.
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