NRDC Petitions FDA: Agency’s Weak Attempt to Curb Antibiotic Abuse in the Livestock Industry is Failing

NRDC Calls on FDA to Stop Antibiotic Overuse in Meat Production

NEW YORK – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is failing to protect people from the rising health threat of antibiotic resistance, according to a petition filed today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other groups.  Sales of antibiotics to the livestock industry have grown in recent years, despite the FDA’s request for the industry to voluntarily reduce use. NRDC’s petition argues that the FDA’s voluntary policy shows no signs it will work and therefore the agency needs to eliminate the riskiest uses of antibiotics that threaten human health.

“If regulators wait for this problem to get any worse, controlling it may no longer be possible,” said Jonathan Kaplan, Director of the Food and Agriculture Program at NRDC. “Future generations are going to wonder why FDA didn’t take real action as these life-saving drugs slipped away from us.”

Today, more than 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the United States are sold for use on livestock and poultry.  And more than 96 percent of those drugs are distributed in feed or water—often to animals that are not sick to speed up growth (“growth promotion”) and help them survive crowded and unsanitary conditions on industrial farms (“disease prevention”). This practice contributes to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the growing crisis of drug-resistant infections in humans.

Due in part to a 2011 NRDC lawsuit seeking the withdrawal of certain antibiotic uses in livestock, FDA created a voluntary program in 2013 to curb the overuse of antibiotics given to farm animals.  Despite lower court rulings in NRDC’s favor, a divided panel on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the FDA to pursue the voluntary program instead of immediately withdrawing the use of specific antibiotics. 

According to FDA’s own data, the voluntary program, known as Guidance 213, is not working. The signals to the industry seem to have had no effect, with antibiotic use continuing to rise since the program’s launch. Indeed, the data suggest that increases in antibiotic use are outpacing increases in livestock production, and that, on average, producers are using more drugs per animal than they did just a few years ago.

Moreover, the voluntary program condones the use of antibiotics for “disease prevention,” which accounts for a substantial share of livestock antibiotic use.  Use of antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention are very similar and share the same negative impacts. Use for either purpose involves low doses of antibiotics administered to entire herds or flocks over long periods of time, a practice that is more likely to give rise to drug-resistant bacteria. By the FDA’s own admission, growth promotion accounts for only 10-15 percent of use, leaving a significant percentage of livestock antibiotic use in place, even if growth-promotion uses are voluntarily discontinued. FDA’s announcement yesterday—that it may recommend that pharmaceutical companies put some limit on the duration of use for some antibiotic products—will likely have little to no effect. If FDA does make that recommendation, it will still be voluntary, and FDA will still be condoning disease-prevention use, potentially for extended periods of time (such as a broiler chicken’s lifetime). And the recommendation would not even affect many disease-prevention uses.

Leading medical experts warn that we must stop overuse of antibiotics in human medicine and animal agriculture, or else the life-saving drugs we rely on to treat common infections and enable medical procedures could stop working. Conservatively, at least 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and at least 23,000 die as a direct result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

NRDC is joined by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Earthjustice, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, CalPIRG, and U.S. PIRG in filing this petition.

The petition can be accessed here:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FDA itself, and many other groups have long recognized that antibiotic use in livestock is contributing to antibiotic resistance that affects human health. Prominent health institutions such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, and many others have identified the routine use of low-dose antibiotics on animals that are not sick as a significant contributor to the rapid proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in both animals and humans and have called for an end to the practice.

As bacteria become resistant to the human antibiotics being overused on farms, the antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” can move from animals to humans through direct contact with livestock, environmental exposure, and through the consumption and handling of meat and poultry products -- which have frequently been found to be contaminated with multi-drug-resistant bacteria ranging from E. coli to Staph. Once transferred to humans, the superbugs can cause infections that are difficult or impossible to treat, which are more likely to be fatal, and can require longer and more expensive hospital stays. One 2009 study estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections may cost Americans an additional $26 billion per year in health care costs alone and more than $55 billion when lost productivity and wages are taken into account.

Denmark – the world’s largest pork exporter – has banned the routine use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick. Danish government and industry data collected since then show a sustained decrease both in overall antibiotic use and in the amount of antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in livestock and meat products, while livestock production has increased. Costs were estimated to be modest. Netherlands too has banned the routine use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick and has set strong targets for the reduction of antibiotic use. The Dutch report that they have met those targets, reducing livestock antibiotic use by nearly 60% without hurting farmers’ profits.


Petitioning Groups

California Public Interest Research Group, Inc. (CALPIRG) takes action when consumers are cheated or the voices of ordinary citizens are drowned out by special interests.  Using the tools of investigative research, media exposés, grassroots organizing, advocacy, and litigation, CALPIRG protects consumers, encourages a fair, sustainable economy, and fosters responsive, democratic government.  CALPIRG is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with members throughout California.

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is a science-based nonprofit organization that focuses on nutrition and food safety issues. It is based in Washington, DC. CSPI is supported by about 610,000 American subscribers-members. For more than a decade, CSPI has published reports and articles about the risks of antibiotic use in farm animals.

Based in San Francisco, Earthjustice is the country’s largest nonprofit public interest environmental law organization and has represented more than 1,000 public interest clients since its founding in 1971.  We wield the power of law and the strength of partnerships to protect people’s health, preserve wild places and wildlife, advance clean energy, and combat climate change, including seeking strategies to reduce the health, environmental, and climate harms from the production of our food and to promote a more environmentally sound agricultural system.

Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) is a national nonprofit organization located in Chicago, Illinois, that promotes the humane and safe production of meat, milk, and eggs. Eliminating the overuse of medically important antibiotics in livestock has been one of FACT’s top priorities for almost two decades.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Bozeman, Montana; and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

Founded in 1971, Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit, public interest organization, headquartered in Washington, DC, with members and supporters nationwide. Public Citizen works before Congress, regulatory agencies, and in the courts to advance consumer interests on a wide range of issues, including healthcare policy and drug safety.

U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), a federation of state PIRG organizations, stands up to special interests on behalf of the American public, working to win concrete results for the public’s health and well-being.  With members throughout the country, U.S. PIRG is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that works on issues such as product safety, public health, campaign finance reform, and consumer protection.

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