Judge Orders FDA to Begin Limiting Antibiotics on Farms

The FDA has been ordered to resume efforts first initiated 35 years ago, which would limit the use of certain antibiotics on farms that may be contributing to increasing problems with antibiotic-resistent infections suffered by humans. 

United States Magistrate Judge Theodore Katz ruled last week in New York that the FDA must begin the process of eliminating the non-medical use of penicillin and tetracycline antibiotics on livestock.

The drugs are given in low doses to cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys to promote growth and to work as a prophylactic against disease and illness. However, the use of the antibiotics for non-therapeutic reasons has been known to be unsafe to humans for decades, because they promote the creation of antibiotic resistant bacteria, so-called superbugs.

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Although the FDA first indicated that it would start limiting use of such non-medical uses in 1977, the agency has failed to take corrective action against the livestock industry, prompting a lawsuit by the environmental and consumer watchdog groups, the National Resource Defense Council, Public Citizen, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Food Animal Concerns Trust and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Drug makers may now be required to petition the FDA for approval of any antibiotic slated for animal use and must prove that the drugs are safe for human health.

Some groups estimate that about 70% of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to farm animals at low doses. Critics say that the antibiotics are used to compensate for unsanitary and inhumane treatment at animal feedlots and to speed up growth to make them fatter and get them to market faster. The levels given to the animals are too low to actually treat diseases.

For years, scientists have warned that the practice was promoting the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which could jump species from livestock to humans. The number of such “superbugs.” like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (MRSA), have increased in recent years.

MRSA infections, have accounted for more than 60 percent of hospital staph infections in recent years. The CDC reports that about 126,000 hospital MRSA infections occur each year, resulting in about 5,000 deaths. But some researchers suggest that the number of deaths from MRSA in the U.S. is closer to 20,000 annually.

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