No one is going to accuse the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of rushing to judgment.
In 1999, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the FDA to stop the common practice of feeding perfectly healthy livestock antibiotics, not to cure disease, but merely to make them pack on weight more efficiently. Of particular concern to the organization were antibiotics used to treat disease in humans. That petition came 22 years after the FDA itself said that such “sub-therapeutic” use of penicillin- and tetracycline-containing products in animals should be halted because it had “not been shown safe.” Studies in the mid-1970s had proven that bacteria easily evolved resistance to the antibiotics, becoming resistant “superbugs.”
Last week, the FDA denied the petition, along with a similar one filed in 2005 by Environmental Defense. Given that the FDA allowed the first petition to gather dust for 12 years, and that each year some 70,000 Americans die from resistant infections, its reason for denial is feeble at best. Pointing out that in it was working “cooperatively” with agribusinesses and pharmaceutical companies to phase out sub-therapeutic use of drugs, the FDA said that banning the practice outright “could take many years and would impose significant resource demands on the agency.”
The FDA’s cooperative route is leading in one direction. Back in the days when the CSPI petition was submitted, farmers gave healthy animals 17.8 million pounds of antibiotics per year; by 2009 the total was 29.8 million pounds, according to the FDA’s own figures. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who introduced The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act in 2009, reported that antibiotic use went up an additional 6.7 percent between 2009 and 2010, after the FDA initiated its new cooperative policy. Fully 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are now fed to healthy livestock.
In Europe, the practice has been banned since 1998, and levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria have plummeted, while meat production rates have stayed the same or increased.
The FDA’s stance is made all the more perplexing because its mandate is to “protect public health,” not to increase the profits of Big Pharma and Big Ag, the groups who profit from keeping the flow of antibiotics coming.
Meanwhile, the case against subtherapeutic antibiotic use mounts. In August, Cargill recalled millions of pounds of ground turkey that was contaminated with antibiotic resistant Salmonella, but not before the superbug sickened 136 consumers in 34 states, hospitalizing 94 and killing one.
In May, a group of leading scientific and environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animals Concerns Trust, and Union of Concerned Scientists filed a lawsuit against the FDA. The groups want the agency to withdraw its approval for most non-therapeutic uses of human drugs in animal feed.
While the FDA has the power to deny a petition with the stroke of a pen, the superbug suit, which is still progressing through the legal system, cannot be dismissed so cavalierly.
This post, along with posts from many great environmental writers, appeared on OnEarth’s website. CLICK HERE.