NRDC Files Lawsuit to Preserve Antibiotics for Sick People, Not Healthy Livestock

Today NRDC and our allies filed a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration to finally end the use of antibiotics in animal feed—a practice that’s contributing to the rise in drug-resistant superbugs and endangering the health of our families. 

Roughly 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy farm animals to promote faster growth and compensate for unsanitary conditions. These cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys receive doses too low to actually treat disease, but high enough to allow bacteria resistant to antibiotic treatment to survive and thrive.

Those bacteria don’t stay on the farm. They spread to humans and can lead to superbugs that are difficult or impossible to cure. Last month, for instance, 55,000 pounds of frozen raw turkey burgers had to be recalled because of a salmonella strain the Centers for Disease Control said is immune to commonly prescribed antibiotics. Drug-resistant infections caused by these and other bacteria are estimated to cost Americans up to $26 billion every year.

We have to ensure these life-saving medicines continue to work when we need them most: when our families are ill. We need to stop wasting them on healthy animals so they remain effective for sick people.

And we need the FDA to do its job. The agency has known for more than 30 years that mixing human antibiotics into animal feed poses a risk to human health. It first confirmed the connection back in 1977.

Yet despite laws that compel the agency to act on its own findings, the FDA has done little to protect Americans from this threat. Nor has it provided a final response to two petitions urging action: these petitions have now been pending for six and 12 years.

The FDA’s paralysis isn’t just irresponsible. It’s illegal.

NRDC, together with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, has taken action to make the agency comply with the law. We want the FDA to follow its own safety findings and withdraw approval for most non-therapeutic uses of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed. We also want the agency to respond to the petitions to withdraw approval of non-therapeutic uses in animal feed of other antibiotics important to human health.

This lawsuit will have no bearing on the use of antibiotics for treating sick animals. We simply want to end the practice of giving these critical disease fighters to healthy livestock when it’s not medically necessary.

Many other nations of have stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion and have succeeded in protecting food prices and increasing food production at the same time. America can do it too.

Denmark is the world’s largest pork exporter, and it banned antibiotics in animal feed more than a decade ago. Since then, Danish government and industry data have shown a sustained decrease in both overall antibiotic use and in the amount of drug-resistant bacteria found on livestock and meat products. At the same time, livestock production has grown and prices have remained stable.

The American National Academy of Sciences estimated back in 1999 that if we were to take similar steps in the U.S. to eliminate all non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock, it would cost grocery shoppers less than $10 annually. That’s less than $13.50 per year in today’s dollars.

We all want to provide safe, wholesome food for our families. And we all want to make sure we can turn to the best medicines if our family members become sick. This lawsuit will help achieve this and ensure that antibiotics will be effective against bacteria for generations to come.