Judge Rules FDA Must Act to Protect Americans from Overuse of Antibiotics in Livestock

Statement by Margaret Mellon, Union of Concerned Scientists

Published Mar 23, 2012

WASHINGTON (March 23, 2012) – A federal judge in New York ruled yesterday that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must address the overuse of non-therapeutic antibiotics in livestock. The ruling is in response to a lawsuit filed last May by the Natural Resources Defense Council, in which the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and other groups are plaintiffs, over the FDA’s failure to address the mounting health threats of antibiotic use in animals.

The judge’s decision requires the FDA to withdraw existing approvals for the growth promoting use in animal agriculture of two antibiotics – penicillin and tetracyclines. The sponsors of the drugs have the right to contest the withdrawals in an evidentiary hearing, but will bear the burden of proving that continued use is safe.

The FDA found in 1977 that feeding animals low doses of penicillin and tetracycline promotes antibiotic-resistant bacteria capable of infecting people but has failed to act on its findings over the past 30 years.

In December 2010, the FDA published data confirming a 2001 UCS estimate that more than 70 percent of all antimicrobial drugs used in the United States are devoted to non-therapeutic use in livestock. This massive overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture has led to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, increasing the risk of deadly infections that are difficult and costly to treat.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Public Citizen were other plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Below is a statement by Margaret Mellon, senior scientist with UCS’s Food & Environment Program:

“This ruling is an important victory for public health. The FDA has known since the 1970s that the routine use of powerful antibiotics in livestock leads to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which cause infections that are more difficult to treat in both people and animals.

“For the past 35 years, while advocates and citizens alike have been urging FDA to take action, the problem has steadily worsened and FDA has sat on its hands, which begs the question of whose interests the agency is protecting.

“This ruling changes the landscape at FDA, making it clear that the agency has a statutory obligation to use its legal authority to cancel the approvals for uses of veterinary drugs the agency has found to be unsafe. The ruling calls into question policies that rely on companies to voluntarily withdraw label claims.

“The glacial pace of the FDA response on animal antibiotics is unacceptable. The agency needs to curb the unnecessary uses of vital antibiotics in animal agriculture. Peoples’ lives depend on it.”