For many years, scientists and agriculturalists have worried about the practice of feeding antibiotics to livestock through feed and water. Farmers use antibiotics for growth promotion, as well as to prevent and address illnesses that arise in the process of growing animals for meat and dairy consumption. Especially on cramped, high-production farms, animals can consume very high quantities of antibiotics as farmers attempt to keep them healthy.
While antibiotics can keep animals from catching an illness and can maintain high levels of meat production, many fear that feeding antibiotics to livestock will lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the digestive tracts of these animals. If this bacteria finds its way into an undercooked hamburger, say, then humans would be susceptible to foodborne illness that is untreatable through available antibiotics. So, why the current lawsuit?
The primary plaintiff in this case is the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit environmental and public health advocacy group. The FDA, the primary defendant, is charged with regulating all drugs, including antibiotics and its uses in agriculture. In 1977, FDA findings showed that some usage of these antibiotics was unsafe and could promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria in livestock. However, the FDA has never revoked approval for the continued usage of antibiotics in animal production.
NRDC has filed this suit in conjunction with several other public-interest groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Both groups had filed complaints against antibiotic use for livestock in 1999 and again in 2005.
These two petitions were never responded to by the FDA. The current suit claims that the FDA has had "unreasonable delay" in responding to these petitions, and alleges that this delay and the FDA's continued approval of antibiotic usage violate the Food and Drug Act.
The lawsuit uses the commonly accepted, though hard to verify, statistic that about 80% of antibiotics consumed in the U.S. are fed to livestock. Of that huge percentage, about 83% of the drugs are used for nontherapeutic purposes (to prevent disease or enhance growth rather than cure sickened animals). It is this continued usage of antibiotics in feed that concerns public health advocates, more so than the short-term usage targeted at ill animals.
The lawsuit was filed in New York State District Court on May 25; the FDA has not responded yet. It will be interesting to see how the case unfolds and whether this legal tactic is enough to hold a federal agency more accountable for its approval of antibiotic use. It's unlikely that antibiotics will be banned, but at the least, this lawsuit may provoke more discussion of a potentially huge public health concern.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.