Superbug Suit: Antibiotics Victory Will Preserve Medicines for Sick People, Not Healthy Livestock

Last night, a federal court ordered the Food and Drug Administration to take action on the practice of giving antibiotics to livestock through animal feed. This victory will help protect American families against superbugs and other drug-resistant bacteria.

Right now, the vast majority of the nation’s antibiotics don’t go to people---they go to healthy pigs, beef cattle, chickens, turkeys, and other farm animals. Livestock producers feed these precious medicines to animals to fatten them up and ward off problems associated with the cramped, dirty conditions of factory farms.

Back in 1977, the FDA's own scientists found that dosing livestock with antibiotics could lead to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. Exposing healthy animals to low doses of penicillin, tetracycline, and other drugs intended to cure human disease can encourage bacteria that are immune to the drug to flourish. And in the decades since, that is exactly what has happened with the rise of superbugs.

These superbugs can easily be carried out of the farm—through animal waste, on livestock workers, or in meat processing—and get into our food, water, and homes. And when superbugs infect a human, regular antibiotics don't work--meaning illnesses last longer, are more expensive to treat, and can even result in death.

Unfortunately, FDA has largely sat on their hands since then. And that is where NRDC stepped in. Along with our partners at Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, and Union of Concerned Scientists, we filed the suit because we wanted to end the FDA’s inaction on a public health threat the agency has known about for 35 years.

And we aren’t the only ones concerned. Many medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, have spoken out against the practice. A CDC task force recently reported that "We are facing the possibility of a future without effective antibiotics for some infections." 

While conscientious doctors do their best to limit the use of unnecessary antibiotics, the livestock industry continued its indiscriminate use of these powerful medicines. More than 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in this country are used in healthy animals.

In the three decades that the FDA has been sitting on its hands, evidence revealing the hazards of using antibiotics in animal feed has mounted. The Court noted in its decisions:  “Research has shown that the use of antibiotics in livestock leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be--and has been--transferred from animals to humans through direct contact, environmental exposure, and the consumption and handling of contaminated meat and poultry products.”

We need antibiotics to work for sick people, not to fatten hogs and cattle being kept in unsanitary conditions. The FDA's job is to ensure a safe food supply, and the court has handed it a clear mandate: tell us what you know to be true, and then do something about it. The ruling states:  “The fact that the FDA ‘is engaging in other ongoing regulatory strategies’ . . . does not relieve if of its statutory obligation to complete withdrawal proceedings.”

The ruling also compels FDA to take action on its own safety findings by withdrawing approval for most non-therapeutic uses of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed, unless the industry can prove in public hearings that those drug uses are safe. That is going to be a tough case to make.