NRDC filed a lawsuit late last week against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for once again failing to respond in a timely manner to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information, this time about antibiotic-resistant bacteria on meat and how antibiotics are used on livestock and poultry. The public health crisis of antibiotic resistance is reaching alarming proportions, and the public and the scientific community deserve the best available information to better understand resistance trends, monitor risky practices, target solutions, and track progress in reducing livestock antibiotic use.
FDA has utterly failed to respond to the information request despite repeated attempts to follow up. This failure is the latest in a line of failures to adhere to the requirements of FOIA. NRDC itself has filed several recent FOIA lawsuits against FDA, including on failure to disclose other information related to antibiotics.
NRDC filed this request in November last year, seeking information on the volume of antibiotics used in livestock as well the data underlying reports on the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat.
FDA collects data about antimicrobial resistance of foodborne bacteria in retail meat through the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS); however, they only report a summary, and the data upon which these reports are based is not publicly available. NRDC sought the raw data underlying the reports, and FDA has failed to respond at all.
Similarly, the federal Animal Drug User Fee Act (ADUFA) requires FDA to collect data on animal drugs containing antimicrobials; however FDA only makes the coarsest summary of the data available to the public—only the total amounts of different drug classes being given to livestock and poultry in the US. So, we know that almost eighty percent of all antibiotics sold in the US are for use in livestock. But FDA does not disclose how those drugs are administered (in food or water or by injection) or marketed (i.e. over-the-counter, prescription, etc.). FDA collects this information and even made some of this data available in 2009 in response to a request from Rep. Slaughter of New York. But it has failed to make this information public since, and it has failed to respond at all to our request for this information.
The vast majority of antibiotics used on livestock are fed day after day to animals that are not sick, to speed up weight gain and compensate for unsanitary, crowded factory farm conditions. This practice is contributing to the looming public health crisis of antibiotic resistance, as leading public health and medical organizations have repeatedly warned. Antibiotic resistance can lead to longer illnesses, the use of antibiotics with greater side effects, and even death when treatments fail. Yet, in the face of the rising public health threat of antibiotic resistance, federal court orders, and growing public pressure to address the problem, the FDA has done virtually nothing to act on antibiotic misuse in livestock.
And now, FDA is even refusing to respond to requests for data they already have that would shed greater light on this practice. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to get FDA to respond to a FOIA request. Agencies routinely respond to such requests. FDA’s unresponsiveness is unfortunately part of a larger pattern of shoving problems under the rug, particularly those related to antibiotic resistance.