(ANIMAL NEWS) The U.S. Government may soon ban the use of popular antibiotics on livestock. The majority of antibiotics are not used on people, but in animal feed to promote growth, a practice that has worried public health officials for years. The overuse of such drugs, such as penicillin, may directly correlate to the increase in bacteria and infections resistant to treatment. Read on for the far-reaching implications this could have on modern agricultural practices and human health. — Global Animal
New York Times, Gardiner Harris
A federal magistrate judge on Thursday ordered the Obama administration to alert drug makers that the government may soon ban the common agricultural use of popular antibiotics in animals because the practice may encourage the proliferation of dangerous infections and imperil public health.
The order, issued by Judge Theodore H. Katz of the Southern District of New York, has the effect of restarting a process that the Food and Drug Administration began 35 years ago in hopes of preventing penicillin and tetracycline, two of the nation’s most popular antibiotics, from losing their effectiveness in humans because of their widespread use in animal feed to promote growth in livestock like chickens, pigs and cattle.
The order comes two months after the Obama administration announced restrictions on agricultural uses of cephalosporins, a critical class of antibiotics that includes drugs like Cefzil and Keflex, which are commonly used to treat pneumonia, strep throat and skin and urinary tract infections. The F.D.A. is expected to issue within days draft rules that would bar the use of penicillin and tetracycline — highly popular in agricultural settings — in animal feed to further growth, the same issue tackled by Judge Katz. A decade ago, the F.D.A. banned indiscriminate agricultural use of a powerful class of antibiotics, called fluoroquinolones, that includes the medicine Cipro.
The judge’s order may accelerate the F.D.A.’s incremental efforts to restrict common agricultural practices that are viewed by microbiologists and other medical researchers as leading to the growth of bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotic treatments, a development that many doctors say has cost thousands of lives.
Antibiotics were the wonder drugs of the 20th century, and their initial uses in both humans and animals were indiscriminate, experts say. Farmers were impressed by the effects of penicillin and tetracycline on the robustness of cattle, chickens and pigs, and added the drugs in bulk to feed and water, with no prescriptions or sign of sickness in the animals.
By the 1970s, public health officials had become worried that overuse was leading to the development of killer infections resistant to treatment. In 1977, the F.D.A. announced that it would begin the process of banning these uses. But the powerful House and Senate appropriations committees passed resolutions urging the F.D.A. not to follow through on these efforts, and the agency retreated.
“In the intervening years, the scientific evidence of the risks to human health from the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock has grown, and there is no evidence the F.D.A. has changed its position that such uses are not shown to be safe,” Judge Katz wrote in his order.
A vast majority of antibiotics used in the United States still goes to treat animals, not humans. Meanwhile, outbreaks of illnesses from antibiotic-resistant bacteria have grown in number and severity.
Environmental and health groups petitioned the F.D.A. in 1999 and 2005 to restart the process to ban the drugs from being overused on farms. In January, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen and the Union of Concerned Scientists filed suit against the F.D.A. On Thursday, Judge Katz ruled that these groups had won their case without need for a trial.
“The rise of superbugs that we see now was predicted by F.D.A. in the ’70s,” said Jen Sorenson, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Thanks to the court’s order, drug manufacturers will finally have to do what F.D.A. should have made them do 35 years ago: prove that their drugs are safe for human health, or take them off the market.”
Judge Katz ordered the F.D.A. to alert drug manufacturers of its intention to end its approval for popular uses of penicillin and tetracycline to promote growth in animals. The manufacturers can request a hearing to present evidence that these uses are safe. If the companies have such evidence, the drugs can continue to be used as they are in agriculture, the judge wrote.
Siobhan DeLancey, an F.D.A. spokeswoman, would not say whether the government planned to appeal. “We are studying the opinion and considering appropriate next steps,” she said.