(Beyond Pesticides, March 26, 2012) Organic and sustainable agriculture advocates achieved a milestone victory on March 23 when a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must act promptly to determine whether to ban subtherapeutic uses of antibiotics in livestock. The ruling is the latest step in a regulatory process that began in 1977 when FDA determined that feeding livestock certain antibiotics used in human medicine, including penicillin and tetracyclines, could promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria capable of infecting people. Despite its legal obligation to act, FDA has delayed taking action for over three decades and in late 2011 even terminated the original rulemaking process in an attempt to close the matter.
In last week’s ruling, Judge Theodore Katz ordered FDA to notify drug manufacturers of its intention to revoke approval for uses of penicillin and tetracycline to promote growth in livestock. FDA must schedule hearings to let drug manufacturers make their case, and if the drug manufacturers cannot prove that the use of these antibiotics in livestock feed is safe, the agency must withdraw approval. The judge’s decision makes it clear that the voluntary approach FDA proposed last year when terminating the rulemaking process does not satisfy the agency’s legal obligations. “In the intervening years (since 1977 — ed.), the scientific evidence of the risks to human health from the widespread use ofantibiotics in livestock has grown, and there is no evidence the FDA has changed its position that such uses are not shown to be safe,” Judge Katz wrote in his order.
The legal victory resulted from a lawsuit filed in 2011 by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, and Union of Concerned Scientists. “The rise of superbugs that we see now was predicted by F.D.A. in the ’70s,” said Jen Sorenson, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Thanks to the court’s order, drug manufacturers will finally have to do what FDA should have made them do 35 years ago: prove that their drugs are safe for human health, or take them off the market.”
Dating to the 1950s, feeding sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics such as penicillin and tetracycline to livestock has become so common that it accounts for upwards of 80% of those materials’ annual usage in the United States. The practice is chronic in the industrial-style production systems referred to as confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in which the vast majority of the country’s swine, poultry and cattle are raised. The unsanitary conditions produced by packing excessive numbers of animals into an unnatural environment create the risk of infectious disease outbreaks that would be averted under living conditions appropriate to each species. CAFO operators capitalize on the accelerated weight gain and improved feed conversion efficiencies associated with animals fed sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics.
The American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the 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 are also used in human medicine. Denmark, the world’s largest pork exporter, banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in broiler chickens and adult swine in 1998, and in young swine in 1999. Danish government and industry data collected since then show a sustained decrease both in overall antibiotic use and in the amount of antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in livestock and meat products, while livestock production has increased. Denmark and other countries which have eliminated using sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics for accelerated growth rates and prophylactic disease control do not prevent veterinarians from treating livestock with those materials when medically appropriate.
Feeding sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to healthy livestock is not the only reckless practice leading to accelerated resistance among dangerous infectious organisms. Beyond Pesticides and a national coalition of partners are leading a grassroots campaign to ban the use of the antimicrobial compound triclosan in consumer products. Widely used in antimicrobial soaps and personal care products and even clothing, triclosan has been detected in human milk samples and in urine at high concentrations that correlate with its use pattern in these products. Recent studies have found that triclosan interferes with the body’s thyroid hormone metabolism and may be a potential endocrine disruptor. Children exposed to antibacterial compounds at an early age also have an increased chance of developing allergies, asthma and eczema.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification standards prohibit treating livestock with any amount of antibiotics. The standards also require that producers maintain living conditions that prevent infectious diseases from becoming established and adversely impacting livestock health. Currently, organic farmers growing apples and pears are allowed to use the antibiotics streptomycin and tetracycline to control a fruit tree disease called fire blight. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the principle advisory body responsible for advising USDA on its organic certification program, has been increasingly reluctant to extend these allowances due to concerns about accelerated resistance in pathogenic organisms and the availability of effective cultural practices and biological treatments for managing fire blight. The NOSB has recommended extending the use of tetracycline and streptomycin to manage fire blight in pear and apple trees through October 2014 pending commercialization of alternative production options.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.