Historic Lawsuit: FDA Sued over Antibiotics Allowed in Farm Animals

A first-of-its kind antibiotic lawsuit aims to curb unnecessary use of drugs in farming and accuses the FDA of putting lives at risk.

May 25, 2011

To avoid antibiotics, buy organic or from a farmer you trust.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—A coalition of environmental and public-health organizations filed suit Wednesday against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), claiming the agency's lax stance on antibiotic use in farming is leading to costly and potentially fatal infections in humans. "Accumulating evidence shows that antibiotics are becoming less effective, while our grocery store meat is increasingly laden with drug-resistant bacteria," Peter Lehner, executive director of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said in a statement. "The FDA needs to put the American people first by ensuring that antibiotics continue to serve their primary purpose—saving human lives by combating disease."


While we rely on antibiotics to save human lives, it's important to note that the majority of these drugs—about 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the country—are administered at low doses to healthy farm animals to speed growth and compensate for unsanitary living conditions. A 2010 FDA report found farm animals ingested nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics a year! According to the NRDC, a co-plaintiff in the suit, the routine feeding of antibiotics to farm animals has increased over the past 60 years despite evidence that it breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria dangerous to humans. Although FDA recognized the link between antibiotic abuse in farming and the increase in antibiotic-resistant germs in the late 1970s, it still hasn't done anything to curb the problem, which now costs the U.S. health care system more than $20 billion a year, according to the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics.

Learn more about how antibiotic overuse affects your family:
Bacteria-Infused Meat Found in Grocery Stores
U.S. Gov't: We Failed to Protect Your Beef
Supermarket Chicken Tainted with Bacteria
Factory Farms Use 30 Million Pounds of Antibiotics a Year (and You're Eating Some of It)
The Superbug in Your Supermarket

THE DETAILS: NRDC, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), Public Citizen, and Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) are co-plaintiffs in the suit against FDA. The organizations aim to force the agency to respond to petitions filed in 1999 and 2005 that requested FDA take action to limit the use of antibiotics important to human medicine, ones used routinely in factory-farming yet vital to battling infections in humans. The suit would not affect a farmer's ability to use antibiotics to treat a legitimately sick animal.

Besides the groups involved in the lawsuit, other powerful voices, including the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, among others, have called for a ban on routinely giving farm animals antibiotics.

WHAT IT MEANS: This issue isn't going away. Other countries are already putting an end to unnecessary antibiotic use in farm animals, and it's working. For instance, pork-producing powerhouse Denmark banned antibiotics used for growth acceleration in the late '90s, and tests already show a decrease in antibiotic use and in antibiotic-resistant bacteria turning up in the animals and the meat.

The National Academy of Sciences projects that a similar ban in the U.S. would add less than $1.25 a month to Americans' grocery bills. That's a drop in the bucket when you consider that U.S. families lost approximately $35 billion in 2000 thanks to lost wages, extended hospital stays, and premature deaths caused by antibiotic-resistant infections. "Antibiotics are vital lifesaving drugs that have the unique ability to kill bacteria without harming the patient," said Richard Wood, FACT executive director. "When they work, they truly are miracle drugs, but when they fail, the results can be catastrophic. Reducing antibiotic overuse is essential for making sure antibiotics will keep working for years to come. We can’t let these precious medicines be wasted so we can save—literally—a few pennies per pig."

Here's how to protect your family from factory-farm-generated superbugs.

• Buy organic. Look for organic meat, dairy, and eggs. The National Organic Program does not allow antibiotics in production of certified organics. If you buy from a smaller sustainable farmer who may not be certified organic, ask the farmers how they raise animals before buying the product. Visit LocalHarvest.org to find sustainable farmers in your area.

• Check the labels. When shopping for meat, look for these labels, which certify that products come from farms that only use antibiotics on animals to cure infections, and not for any other "non-therapeutic" uses:

USDA Certified Organic

American Grassfed Certified

Animal Welfare Approved

Certified Humane

• Watch your windows. The superbug problem may be brewing in factory farms, but it doesn't end there. Over the last few years, researchers have found MRSA flying off of trucks hauling chickens to slaughter (might want to close your windows if you're driving behind one).

• Raise your own. Of course, to have complete control of your food chain, you can raise your own animals. Raising chickens is particularly doable for many families—just be sure to opt for organic feed—others could contain antibiotics or arsenic, also a growth promoter.

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