Judge to FDA on Antibiotics: Prove They're Safe

After years of scientific research about superbugs, the U.S. District Court demands an answer on the risks of antibiotics.

Do we need more antibiotics? Or better conditions for domestic food animals? (Daniel Pepper/Getty Images)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

After years of scientists and agribusiness going head to head over antibiotics, a federal court judge has ruled that now is the moment of truth. Last Thursday U.S. District Court Judge Theodore Katz ordered the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prove whether or not feeding antibiotics to livestock has a negative effect on human health. If it does, agribusiness must stop the practice. 

Superbugs—drug-resistant bacteria that are responsible for the death of 70,000 Americans every year—are a hotly contested issue. Since antibiotic use in domestic food animals was approved in the 1950s, studies have attempted to prove their cause and effect on human health. In 1977, the FDA found that unbridled use of antibiotics in feed, which is common in the meat industry to promote growth of cows and ward off disease in overcrowded quarters, can lead to the proliferation of superbugs. Yet, three decades later, the administration has still not banned them. With the telltale information in its back pocket for years, the FDA has continued to drag its feet under pressure from drug companies, agribusiness, and its allies in Congress.

"Accumulating evidence shows that antibiotics are becoming less effective, while our grocery store meat is increasingly laden with drug-resistant bacteria," Peter Lehner, NRDC executive director, said at the time. "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."In 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued over the issue, citing the 1977 study. 

Now Judge Katz is ruling that the FDA must address its 1977 findings and take action. He has ordered further hearings, allowing drug sponsors a chance to prove that subtherapeutic use of antiobiotics—that is, feeding animals penicillin and tetracyclines preventatively instead of when they're sick—is safe.

Despite the negative publicity that subtherapeutic use of antibiotics has received, the practice isn't slowing. According to FDA data released in 2011, sales of antibiotics for domestic food animals increased by 6.7 percent from 2009 to 2010, bringing the annual national dose to 30.6 million pounds every year for animals alone.

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