Time for FDA to Act: Antibiotic Use in Healthy Livestock Is Endangering Our Families

Anyone who has ever watched a child suffer from strep throat or a parent fall prey to pneumonia knows the healing power of antibiotics. Not only do these wonder drugs offer relief within hours, but they also provide a critical line of defense against bacteria that could prove disabling or fatal otherwise.

And yet over the last several decades, we have been squandering the power of these medicines. Roughly 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy farm animals to foster rapid growth and make up for unhygienic living conditions.

As a result, many bacteria that live on animals adapt and become resistant to antibiotics. They transform into superbugs that move from livestock to humans through food, air, and water. Infections caused by these bacteria can be much harder to treat or may become immune to medical treatment. The results can be deadly.

One of the most valuable tools of modern medicine is now being misused in a way that can make our families more vulnerable to illness. If we want to preserve the effectiveness of these drugs for sick people, we must stop wasting them on healthy animals.

NRDC and our partners have filed a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration to end this dangerous practice. The agency has known for more than three decades that mixing human antibiotics into animal feed poses a risk to human health.

I first heard about this connection back in the mid 1970s. When I first started at NRDC, I sat next to Frederica Perera, who now the director of the Center for Children’s Health at Columbia University. Back then, she was working on a report with NRDC’s Science Director Dr. Karim Ahmed on the link between antibiotics in animal feed and the rise in drug-resistant infections.

This issue has been around for my entire career, and yet the government has done almost nothing to address it. Even the FDA issued its own finding on the problem back in 1977, yet it has never acted on it. NRDC’s lawsuit is designed to change that.

And Americans are clamoring for change. Nearly every time I gave a talk, young parents approach me with concerns about synthetic chemicals in their children’s food, including hormones and antibiotics.

Earlier this month, I attended the Future of Food Conference in Washington DC, where several leaders, including author Wendell Berry, Senator John Tester of Montana, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Prince Charles gathered to talk about the need for more sustainable farming practices.  

The abuse of antibiotics in livestock production was a major theme at the event. NRDC Trustee Laurie David stood up and challenged Secretary Vilsack to take action on the issue. When he said he simply didn’t know how to legislate such a problem, members of the audience spontaneously called out the answer for him: “regulate it!”

Our lawsuit wouldn’t prevent farmers from giving medicine to sick animals, but we do want to end the practice of dosing entire herds of healthy livestock.

When we humans get sick, our doctors give us very specific instructions for how to take antibiotics, because if we use too low of a dose, skip a few pills, or if stop too soon, we won’t kill all the bacteria or worse, we will create drug-resistant bacteria and we won’t get better. 

We want livestock producers to follow the same principles of smart antibiotic use. As Representative Louise Slaughter from New York State says, “If you mixed an antibiotic in your child’s cereal, people would think you’re crazy.” Why should farmers put these critical medicines in feed they give their healthy animals every day?

All 27 countries in the European Union and many other nations around the world have successfully stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion, increasing production, and reducing the incidence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in meat.

America can do it too. We can produce healthy, wholesome food and at same time we protect the effectiveness of life-saving medicines.