Public health win: FDA ordered to act to stem antibiotic overuse in farm animals
It’s a hellish and frightening prospect — the chance of acquiring Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), a staph bacterial infection that’s resistant to methicillin and common antibiotics like oxacillin, penicillin and amoxicillin.
Most commonly manifesting as ghastly, pus-filled pustules or boils that are red, swollen and painful, MRSA can quickly develop into a severe and life-threatening infection of the bloodstream, lung or heart.
But MRSA is only one of a growing number of “superbugs” or antibiotic resistant infections. These include resistant strains of bacteria that cause tuberculosis, as well as Streptococcus and Enterococcus and Clostridium difficile.
Few people know that this rise of superbug infections was predicted by the United States Food and Drug Administration 35 years ago, when it first became alarmed over the growing use of low doses of antibiotics in healthy livestock.
But in the years that followed, the FDA didn’t take steps to stop the agricultural industry from this now-widespread practice.
Now, a federal judge in New York has ruled that the FDA must address the use of antibiotics in livestock — and public health advocates and environmentalists hope the ruling will lead to a ban on the practice.
The ruling favors a coalition of plaintiffs — which includes the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), Public Citizen, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) — which filed suit last May in a bid to push the FDA to exert more control over the agricultural use of penicillin and tetracycline.
These two popular antibiotics are mixed in with feed partly to protect chickens, pigs and cattle from getting sick in crowded, unsanitary feedlot areas, but mostly also to speed their growth. According to a recent estimate by the FDA, only 20 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to sick people — the remainder is given to farm animals used in food production.
Way back in 1977, the FDA became alarmed over the use of constant low doses of antibiotics in healthy animals, saying this might trigger the development of antibiotic-resistant killer bacteria that could potentially infect people.
“In the intervening years, the scientific evidence of the risks to human health from the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock has grown,” the court decision noted.
Meanwhile, as the years passed and antibiotic use in livestock rose, public health advocates have been pushing the federal government to put more restrictions on this system. The NRDC antibiotics used in livestock rose dramatically from the previous decade, reaching 29.8 million pounds in 2009.
But the problem is, after constant use some animals develop germs that are immune to antibiotics. These “superbugs” can then pass to farm workers and their families. In other cases, the “superbugs” run off into lakes and rivers during heavy rains, are carried by the winds into neighboring communities or contaminate steaks and chops that end up in meals.
“For over 35 years ago, FDA has sat idly on the sidelines largely letting the livestock industry police itself,” said Avinash Kar, NRDC health attorney, commenting on the ruling, which she praised.
“In that time, the overuse of antibiotics in healthy animals has skyrocketed — contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that endanger human health,” said Kar. “Today, we take a long overdue step toward ensuring that we preserve these life-saving medicines for those who need them most — people.”
“These drugs are intended to cure disease, not fatten pigs and chickens,” Kar added.