For around four decades, the FDA has been aware that when producers use large and unnecessary quantities of antibiotics on healthy livestock, it contributes to the ongoing problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria. In turn, it has been made abundantly clear, in study after study, that antibiotic resistant bacteria reduces the effectiveness of life-saving antibiotics for humans. Although the FDA has been aware of all of the aforementioned since the 1970s, they’ve done little to regulate the use of penicillin and tetracyclines in livestock feed, in turn leaving families at risk. But this week, the tides have turned. Judge Theodore H. Katz of the Southern District of New York, acting on a lawsuit brought against the FDA by NRDC and partners, ordered the FDA to initiate proceedings to withdraw approval for antibiotic use in animal feed, unless drug manufacturers prove in a hearing that said antibiotic use is safe for humans. While most food advocates believe that this week’s court proceedings will likely be appealed by the FDA, this is still a huge public health victory for everyone concerned about the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
In America we use all sorts of products that result in antibiotic resistant bacteria — or what some people call super germs or super bugs. While all germs can be killed, germs are still extremely crafty little critters. Once you start killing off bacteria with one antibiotic, the bacteria wise up and adapt quickly so that future bacteria generations can withstand the previously used antibiotic. Scientists are then are forced to create newer, stronger antibiotics to kill of new generations of bacteria, who in turn further adapt — and so the cycle goes on and on. This is one reason why doctors no longer continually suggest antibiotics treatment for ailments such as basic ear infections in children.
When the FDA allows producers to use antibiotics on healthy livestock, simply to plump them up, those antibiotics are passed on to meat-eating humans. But the scope of super germs doesn’t end with meat. A presentation from the 2000 Emerging Infectious Diseases Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, that’s backed up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with a slew of other research, have noted that antibacterial cleaners and body care products aren’t effective and are very likely decreasing antibiotic efficiency as well.
As antibiotics and antibacterials build up in humans and the environment, you can see where we run into problems. We end up with a ton of people who can’t take a simple antibiotic to fight off illness because bacteria are now stronger and more clever than the drugs.
Sadly the FDA is resistant to change. They’ve made minor moves to protect public health, and in most cases they’ve repeatedly evaded the issue of antibiotics used in livestock. Many guess that this is due to industry pressure and the deep pockets of Big Ag, drug companies, and other corporate empires. Beyond evasion, the FDA has gone so far as to suggest the livestock industry voluntarily self-regulate antibiotic use — a move that has been in practice for years. But under the judge’s orders, evasion is no longer a privilege the FDA will have.
Judge Katz notes that when the FDA found out that penicillin and tetracyclines were not safe, they were obligated to initiate proceedings to withdraw approval for their use in animal feed. The New York Times reports that Judge Katz has further, “Ordered the FDA to alert drug manufacturers of its intention to end its approval for popular uses of penicillin and tetracycline to promote growth in animals.” In response, manufacturers do maintain the right to request a hearing to present evidence that these drugs are safe, and if the companies can prove this, the drugs can continue to be used. But if the drug manufacturers cannot prove safe use of antibiotics in animal feed, the FDA must withdraw approval for those drug uses in livestock. This is likely to be a lengthy process, but considering public health has been waiting on this for four decades, this is still a major development.
Lead image by jannbr via sxc