A federal court judge has ordered the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to restart the 35-year-old process to stop farmers from using two types of antibiotics in healthy animals. Scientists have warned that this practice is contributing to the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which could infect humans.
The FDA approved antibiotic use in animals in 1951, before any concerns regarding drug resistance were recognized.
In a ruling handed down on Thursday, the judge ordered that the FDA must begin taking steps to withdraw approval of the two antibiotics for routine use in animals, siding with four consumer safety groups that brought a lawsuit against the FDA last year. Even though the FDA first indicated that it would start limiting the non-medical use of antibiotics in 1977, they have failed to take corrective action against the livestock industry. This is what prompted the lawsuit by the watchdog groups.
In 1977, the FDA found that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock (cattle, pigs, and poultry) weakened the treatment’s effectiveness in humans. The FDA issued an order, which would have banned the non-medical use of penicillin and tetracycline in farm animals, unless the drug makers could prove that the drugs were safe. Unfortunately, this rule was never enforced, due to the tenacious pushback from Congress and lobbyists for farmers and drug makers. The farmers argued that these drugs are given in low doses and are necessary to keep animals healthy and to promote growth.
However, the use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic reasons has long been known to be unsafe for humans, because it builds antibiotic-resistant bacteria, known as “superbugs.” The same is true for the farm animals. After constant use, some animals develop germs that are immune to antibiotics. These germs (or superbugs) can then pass to farmers and their families, and even the consumers.
Public health advocates have been pushing the federal government to put more restrictions on antibiotics for decades. Nearly 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to farm animals used in food production, according to a recent estimate by the FDA. The farmers mostly use the drugs in healthy animals to aid in their growth and prevent them from illness in crowded, unsanitary feedlot areas. Critics say that the levels given to the animals are too low to actually treat diseases.
Earlier this year, the FDA banned non-medical use of the antibiotics classified as “cephalosporins,” which are sold for human use under brands such as Keflex, Ceftin, and Cedax, used to treat bone, urinary tract, and respiratory infections. Cephalosporins (unlike penicillin and tetracyclines), were never approved by the FDA for non-medical use in animals.
Beginning April 5, 2012, it will become illegal to use the antibiotics in healthy animals as a way to help prevent disease. Use of the antibiotics to treat specific illness in farm animals will remain legal.
The problem with the over use of antibiotics in farm animals is that it not only affects the meat from cattle, pigs, and poultry, but the dairy products, as well. The superbug known as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria) has increased over the years. It is said that MRSA infections have accounted for over 60 percent of hospital staph infections. The CDC reports that about 126,000 hospital MRSA infections occur annually, resulting in up to 20,000 deaths, because MRSA infections are resistant to antibiotics.
If the FDA does not crack down on the farmers to stop the over use of antibiotics, the American public is at great risk. These efforts began 35 years ago and still are not resolved. If the FDA knows that these practices are unsafe for humans due to the risk of promoting antibiotic resistant bacteria, why is this still taking place in 2012?
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