FDA Sued Over Unsafe Antibiotic Use in Animals

microbes, superbugs, bacteria

Finally someone has reacted to the crisis that has been escalating for  over thirty years. Since 1976 when Professor Stuart Levy (molecular biology, microbiology and medicine at Tufts university School of medicine) published his research in the New England Journal of Medicine about antibiotic-resistant bacteria being breed in animals fed antibiotics in order to promote growth, both industry and health officials have known that this practice was unsafe for humans.

Since that time, study after study has confirmed Levy’s findings. We now know for certain that overuse and abuse of antibiotics in factory farm livestock feed has bred “super bugs” that are resistant to even the most recent drugs. Over 70,000 Americans die each year from bacterial infections that do not respond to drug therapy.

In 2009, 29.8 million pounds of antibiotics were fed to livestock, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Fully 80% of the antibiotics used in the United States are given to livestock, and the vast majority are administered to promote growth and ward off potential infections, not to treat illness.

In May of this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, and the Union of Concerned Scientists joined together and filed a lawsuit against the FDA. These groups are petitioning the agency to withdraw its approval for most non-therapeutic uses of penicillin and tetracycline in animal feed.

This is something something regulators who are charged with protecting public health should have done decades ago.

While the FDA approved the use of low dose antibiotics for livestock in the 1950’s, by 1977 they proposed to withdraw that approval citing new evidence that showed that it had not been “shown safe for widespread, sub-therapeutic use.”

Big Ag and Big Pharma, two of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington stepped in. You know the outcome. It’s the power and money behind these two lobbying groups that dictates how the FDA responds.

According to Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists,

We’ve been fighting the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock for more than 30 years…And over those decades the problem has steadily worsened. We hope this lawsuit will finally compel the FDA to act with an urgency commensurate with the magnitude of the problem.

The problem is that bacteria have an amazing capacity to mutate in order to survive. So even very small amounts of a substance will trigger mutation and resistance to the drug.

However, there is reason for hope. This lawsuit is a good start and there is also Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (since 1986) who was a microbiologist before becoming a representative in New York. She introduced a bill called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which calls for the FDA to withdraw its approval of the practice within two years unless there is reasonable certainty that the low-dose antibiotics cause no harm to human health.

Although the bill has not yet passed it is gaining support in Congress.

The best solution is to support local farmers who are engaging in biodynamic polyculture farms that do not need drugs like antibiotics to prevent disease because their animals are living the life they are supposed to live and eating the things they are supposed to eat. Animals raised this way are healthy and do not spew out toxic bacteria. These humane and ethical local farms that can provide safe, clean, real food are our hope for the future.


Estabrook, Barry, Decades of antibiotics in farm animals lead to deadly superbugs


Photo Credit: Kaibara 87

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Leave a Comment

  • Danielle @ Analytical Mom June 7, 2011, 9:40 pm

    As always, great post. What do you think the chances of success are for the lawsuit, and for the bill in Congress? Do you know if anything similar has been attempted in the recent past?

    • Jill June 8, 2011, 7:33 am

      Hi Danielle,
      Thanks for your kind words. I really do not know the outcome — they have been at this for over 30 years — and the lobbyists for Big Ag and Big Pharma are very strong. However, it is a lawsuit so lets hope for the best!

    • Stephanie June 8, 2011, 10:15 am

      PAMTA has been introduced in each session in either House or Senate for at least the past 10 years. We need a lmassive amount of ground-level support to pass it over the lobbying power of both big ag and the pharmaceutical companies.

      Unfortunately, I’m really afraid that it will take a major loss of lives before public support will be substantial enough to overcome the opposition. Spread the word! Maybe we can make it happen before we reach that point.

  • Jo-Lynne {Musings of a Housewife} June 8, 2011, 6:14 am

    Thanks for calling attention to this important issue!

    • Jill June 8, 2011, 7:34 am

      Hi Jo-Lynne,
      Thanks for your support!

  • Alison June 8, 2011, 6:48 am

    great post, so hope this goes forward!

    • Jill June 8, 2011, 7:34 am

      Hi Alison,
      Thanks for your support!

  • Stephanie June 8, 2011, 10:12 am

    I love seeing coverage of livestock-production related antibiotic resistance! Please encourage your readers to contact their Reps and Seantors about supporting the issue and PAMTA as well. (If you need links for those, let me know.)

    I was always so proud that Kennedy introduced it in the senate, and hope that we’ll get more support in the next congress.

  • Jill June 8, 2011, 12:02 pm

    Hi Stephanie,
    Thanks for your comments and send the links when you get a chance to me: Jill@RealFoodForager.com. I loved your chiffonade — what a great idea!

  • Hannah K. June 8, 2011, 12:06 pm

    This just reenforces for me why we buy from local farmers.

    I shudder to think of all the antibiotics that are being given to livestock unnecessarily. I pray this makes the FDA wake up, but I have to admit I’m not holding my breath.

    • Jill June 8, 2011, 1:20 pm

      Hi Hannah,
      Thanks for your comments and support. I found your article interesting.