A federal court on Thursday ordered the FDA to follow through on a 35-year-old proposal that would have banned the use of certain antibiotics in animal feed because the agency was concerned that these drugs were overused in livestock and helped develop drug-resistant bacteria that can infect people.
The concern is that some antibiotics given to treat illnesses in people are widely used on animals to promote disease prevention and weight gain, as well as compensate for crowded conditions on ranches and farms. The prevalence of those antibiotics in livestock has been linked in several studies to the creation of drug-resistant “superbugs” that can spread to humans who work with or eat the animals.
In 1977, the Food and Drug Administration proposed banning the use of penicillin and two forms of tetracyline for growth promotion. But the proposal has been in limbo ever since. The agency never held hearings or took any further action, prompting the Natural Resources Defense Council and four other health and consumer advocacy groups to sue the government in May 2011.
A federal district court in Manhattan ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on Thursday, compelling the FDA to press forward with its initial plan to start proceedings that could lead to a withdrawal of the drugs.
Every day, inspectors in white hats and coats take up positions at every one of the nation’s slaughterhouses, eyeballing the hanging carcasses of cows and chickens as they shuttle past on elevated rails, looking for bruises, tumors and signs of contamination.
It’s essentially the way U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety inspectors have done their jobs for a century, ever since Upton Sinclair’s blockbuster novel, “The Jungle,” exposed horrid conditions in a Chicago meatpacking facility and shook Americans awake to the hazards of tainted food.
But these days, the bulk of what Americans eat — seafood, vegetables, fruit, dairy products, shelled eggs and almost everything except meat and poultry — is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. And the FDA inspects the plants it oversees on average about once a decade.
These radically different approaches are a legacy from a time when animal products were thought to be inherently risky and other food products safe. But in the past few years, the high-profile and deadly outbreaks of food-borne illness linked to spinach, peanuts and cantaloupe have put the lie to that assumption.
The FDA’s approach is partly by necessity: The agency lacks the money to marshal more inspectors.
But it also reflects a different philosophy about how to address threats to the nation’s food supply: an approach based on where the risk is greatest.
The agency concentrates its limited inspections on food products that have the worst track record on safety — seafood, for example — and on companies with a history of problems. It puts most of its efforts into responding to outbreaks after the fact, using genetic fingerprinting and other scientific tools to track contaminants back to their source in hopes of stopping any further spread.
I’m sure I’ll get an earful from certain readers for this, but I can’t for the life of me see how any health-conscious person can think drinking raw — that is, unpasteurized — milk is a good idea.
That opinion’s bolstered by a CDC report issued Tuesday. A survey of dairy-related disease outbreaks from 1993 to 2006 found that 60 percent of reported illnesses related to dairy consumption involved unpasteurized milk. The numbers themselves aren’t huge — 1,571 cases of illness and 202 hospitalizations — but there were two deaths.
Illnesses related to consumption of pasteurized dairy products almost all involved contamination caused by mishandling after pasteurization. That’s something we consumers have little control over.
But we do have control over what kind of milk we put in our — and our children’s — mouths. The study found that 60 percent of the illnesses related to raw milk occurred among people younger than 20. The authors note that public-health agencies have a duty to protect those who are too young to make their own food choices.
The study also found that 75 percent of the outbreaks related to raw milk consumption took place in the 21 states where it was legal to sell raw milk products at the time; the study notes that seven states changed their laws during the study period.