The overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture and medicine is putting human lives at unnecessary risk and driving up medical costs, according to a group of group of 150 scientists that includes a former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Along with 50 US farmers and ranchers who have opted out of using non-therapeutic antibiotics in their animal feed, the scientists are calling on the FDA and Congress to work together to regulate unnecessary use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.
In twin statements released on Wednesday, the scientists and farmers said that a growing body of research supported the conclusion that overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is fueling a health crisis. One statement cited a study which estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections cost $20bn annually to hospitals alone.
Donald Kennedy, former FDA commissioner and president emeritus at Stanford University, said: “There’s no question that routinely administering non-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to food animals contributes to antibiotic resistance.”
Kennedy said the FDA’s current voluntary approach, which asks the animal drug industry to stop selling antibiotics medically important to human disease as growth promoters in animal feed, was not enough. Kennedy, who was also former editor-in-chief of Science magazine for eight years, said: “Unless it reaches the industry as a regulatory requirement it will not be taken seriously.”
Three decades after the FDA determined that growth-promoting uses of penicillin and tetracycline in agriculture were threatening human health, its own data shows that 80% of all antimicrobial drugs sold nationally are used in animal agriculture.
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.