The Failure of the FDA: Why We're Still Using Antibiotics on Livestock

Instead of making good on its 1977 promise to limit the use of drugs as growth promoters in animals, the FDA is going in the other direction.

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Over the past several weeks, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been in the news for its stance on antibiotic use in farm animals. Yet instead of making good on its 1977 promise to limit these drugs in livestock, the agency is moving in the opposite direction. The latest developments reveal that the FDA is actively trying to avoid protecting Americans from a known health hazard that the agency itself acknowledges.

In court papers (PDF) filed this week, the FDA:

  • Acknowledged that scientists have long warned about antibiotic use: "In April 1970, the Commissioner established a scientific task force to review the use of antibiotic drugs in animal feeds. In 1972, that task force published a report acknowledging that the use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals was associated with the development of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria."
  • Repeatedly confirmed the threat from antibiotics: "A series of additional studies were conducted by other government agencies and nongovernmental organizations during the 1990s, all of which generally supported FDA's concerns regarding the public health threat posed by antimicrobial resistance." And "a series of additional studies were conducted by other government agencies and non-governmental organizations during the 1990s, all of which generally supported FDA's concerns regarding the public health threat posed by antimicrobial resistance."
  • Said that use of antibiotics in farm animals should be limited: "The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health."

Anyone who has ever watched a child recover from strep throat or a parent rebound from pneumonia knows the healing power of antibiotics. Yet over the last few decades, we have been squandering the power of these medicines.

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Roughly 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy farm animals to foster rapid growth and make up for unhygienic living conditions. Many bacteria that live on animals adapt and transfer to humans, spreading superbugs that are often resistant to treatment.

For more than 35 years, the FDA has recognized that giving antibiotics to farm animals poses a risk to human health, yet the agency has done almost nothing to stop it. Indeed, it has mastered the art of making inaction look like action. Last May, NRDC and our partners sued the FDA to prompt it to take action. Instead, the agency retrenched.

It started by claiming the livestock industry could police itself. In our lawsuit, we asked the FDA to finally rule on two citizen petitions -- one filed 12 years ago, the other six years ago -- urging the agency to stop the use of antibiotics in healthy animals. In November, the FDA announced that although it shares concerns that the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster is dangerous for humans, it would deny the petition because it was pursuing an alternative strategy.

This "alternative strategy" turns out to be just another name for the status quo. Instead of banning the use of antibiotics in healthy animals, the FDA is allowing the livestock industry to follow a voluntary approach. But we already know voluntary doesn't work. The FDA has been operating under that model since 1977, yet the practice has expanded exponentially over the years. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house.

In December, the FDA tried to further justify its inaction by erasing the historic record. Back in 1977, the agency proposed to withdraw approval for the use of several antibiotics in animal feed based on findings published in two notices posted in the Federal Register. The notices containing the findings have been listed in the Federal Register for more than three decades. But just before Christmas a few weeks ago, the FDA pulled the notices. Soon after it buried its 35-year-old proposal, the agency tried to have it both ways. On January 5, it proposed banning off-label uses of a class of antibiotics known as cephalosporins on healthy livestock. That sounds like a step in the right direction, and the agency got some favorable press, but keep in mind that cephalosporins account for less than 0.25 percent of all antibiotics used in agriculture.

This tiny gesture reveals a fundamental problem within the FDA's position: The agency has never disputed the science proving that antibiotic use in healthy animals is a health risk, and yet it still refuses to take bold action -- action we believe it is legally obligated to take.

In its official response to NRDC's lawsuit (PDF) earlier this week, the FDA repeatedly confirmed the threat, as noted in those bullet points above. Like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and other medical experts, the FDA knows that giving healthy pigs, cows, and chickens some of humankind's most potent drugs is a dangerous risk.

It is well past time for the agency to do something with that knowledge. Many countries -- including all 27 members of the EU -- have successfully stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion, while protecting food prices and increasing food production. Now the United States must do the same, and NRDC will continue pushing the FDA to lead the way.

Image: Ints Vikmanis/Shutterstock.

Frances Beinecke is the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international environmental organization. She is also the author of Clean Energy Common Sense and recently served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.


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