FDA Ordered to Take Action on Antibiotic Use in Farming

By Leah Zerbe

Getting antibiotics out of animal feed could save thousands of human lives.

In a major court decision that could help protect Americans from potentially fatal superbug infections, a federal judge ruled Thursday night that the Food and Drug Administration must act now to address the dangers involved with overusing antibiotics in livestock production.

The move to force an FDA antibiotic ban was a long-time coming.

In 1977, FDA concluded that routinely feeding healthy farm animals low doses of antibiotics to boost growth and prevent disease could promote hard-to-kill, antibiotic-resistant germs that could infect humans. Despite that announcement 35 years ago, FDA took no action to curb the use.

"For more than 30 years, FDA has sat idly on the sidelines largely letting the livestock industry police itself," says Avinash Kar, health attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the five public health and environmental groups that filed suit against the FDA last year on the issue. "In that time, the overuse of antibiotics in healthy animals has skyrocketed—contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that endanger human health. Today, we take a long overdue step toward ensuring people that we preserve these life-saving medicines for those who need them most—people."

The court order requires that FDA take action on its own safety findings by withdrawing approval for most non-therapeutic uses of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed, unless industry can prove them safe. Currently, approximately 70 percent of antibiotics used in this country are administered to healthy animals in low doses that promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Read More: The 15 Grossest Things You're Eating

And these superbugs that develop and thrive in non-organic, industrial farm systems don't just stick around the farm, either. Previous studies have found MRSA, a dangerous antibiotic-resistant strain that kills 17,000 people a year in the U.S., in supermarket meat samples. A 2010 United States Department of Agriculture audit detected antibiotics, arsenic, and worming medications in meat samples sold around the country.

The Court decision noted: "Research has shown that the use of antibiotics in livestock leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be—and has been—transferred from animals to humans through direct contact, environmental exposure, and the consumption and handling of contaminated meat and poultry products."

A 2011 study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that nearly 80 percent of the turkey samples tested contained staph bacteria, while 41 percent of the chicken and 37 percent of the beef suffered staph contamination. Nearly all of the tainted meats contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains.

Read More: Bacteria-Infused Meat Found in Grocery Stores

The decision to remove unnecessary antibiotic use from livestock production is supported by many groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and USDA, among many others.

Natural Resources Defense Council

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Note: The Rodale Research Feed features new research findings that may include preliminary or unconfirmed results. Check with a healthcare provider, or an appropriate advisor you trust, before making any significant changes based on these reports.

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