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The FDA Does Not Have to Ban Antibiotic Use in Livestock, Court Rules

Despite evidence that antibiotic use in animals that are used for food can be harmful to public health, a court has ruled that the FDA does not have to ban their use.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a detailed report outlining a major threat to public health – antibiotic resistance.

That report describes the very real possibility of common infections and minor injuries becoming lethal because of the diminishing effectiveness of antibiotics.

According to the report, resistance to common bacteria has reached “alarming levels” in many parts of the world. Perhaps even more scary is that in some settings, few – if any – available treatment options remain effective.

From the WHO’s press release:

A new report by WHO–its first to look at antimicrobial resistance, including antibiotic resistance, globally–reveals that this serious threat is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country. Antibiotic resistance–when bacteria change so antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections–is now a major threat to public health.

“Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” says Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security. “Effective antibiotics have been one of the pillars allowing us to live longer, live healthier, and benefit from modern medicine. Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating.”

Despite those findings – and evidence that antibiotic use in animals that are used for food can be harmful to public health – a federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a U.S. Food and Drug Administration policy allowing the use of various antibiotics in animal feed.

From Food Safety News:

The ruling overturns two district court rulings from 2012 in a case initially filed in 2011 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The groups argue that FDA is required by statute to hold hearings to determine whether to withdraw approval for the use of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed after the agency declared that the subtherapeutic use of the drugs in animal feed “ha[s] not been shown to be safe” in the late 1970s.

Such hearings would be a requirement for industry to prove that the use of these drugs as approved is safe.

In its 2-1 decision, the court wrote:

Congress “has not required the FDA to hold hearings whenever FDA officials have scientific concerns about the safety of animal drug usage [and] that the FDA retains the discretion to institute or terminate proceedings to withdraw approval of animal drugs…”

And in response to arguments that the FDA failed to act in the face of scientific evidence, the court added that “whether long-running inaction by the agency was politically inspired foot dragging or wise caution in developing a cost-effective approach [to addressing the problem], it was for the agency, and not the courts, to determine how to best proceed.” (source)

In other words, the FDA gets a pass – and public health will likely suffer.

In his dissent, Judge Robert Katzmann wrote:

“Today’s decision allows the FDA to openly declare that a particular animal drug is unsafe, but then refuse to withdraw approval of that drug. It also gives the agency discretion to effectively ignore a public petition asking it to withdraw approval from an unsafe drug. I do not believe the statutory scheme can be read to permit those results.”

Advocacy groups also expressed concern:

“The science was there in 1977 and 40 years later, it’s only gotten stronger that these low-dose, routine use of antibiotics on livestock is causing development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and that bacteria is coming off the farm in many different ways and affecting humans,” said Mae Wu, an attorney with NRDC’s health program.

“This effectively gives FDA a pass to ignore science and continue with a policy that will not really reduce antibiotic use,” says Avinash Kar, a staff attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, one of the four advocacy groups that sued the FDA. “To what extent the FDA guidance will prevent unsafe use of antibiotics for promoting animal growth is unclear. The companies can back out if they want.”

Robert Lawrence, who heads the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, says misuse of antibiotics “contributes to the epidemic of antibiotic resistance in our hospitals and communities.” The ruling is “deeply disappointing because it allows voluntary guidelines to take the place of decisive action in confronting one of the important public health problems of our time.”

Jennifer Sorenson, a lawyer for the NRDC, said the decision “effectively gives the FDA a free pass to ignore the science when it is politically inconvenient.” She said the group will explore its legal options.

At least 23,000 people die every year from antibiotic-resistant infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From Food Safety News:

The CDC estimates at least two million illnesses come from an antibiotic-resistant infection every year, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reports that 22 percent of these are linked to the foodborne pathogens.

About 80 percent of all antibiotics distributed in the U.S. were for food animals, and CSPI has documented 55 foodborne illness outbreaks between 1973 and 2011 where the bacteria identified were resistant to at least one antibiotic. Thirty-four of those outbreaks occurred since 2000.

In September 2013, the CDC released a report that addressed the growing threat of antibiotic resistance.

From that report:

“Because of the link between antibiotic use in food-producing animals and the occurrence of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, antibiotics should be used in food-producing animals only under veterinary oversight and only to manage and treat infectious diseases, not to promote growth.”

Because we cannot rely on the FDA (or any government agency) to keep our food safe, we have to be resourceful and find alternatives.

There are several ways to do this.

Daisy Luther of The Organic Prepper suggests making friends with local farmers who don’t use hormones or antibiotics for their livestock. Eating meat and poultry from local, grass-fed animals who aren’t stuffed with antibiotics is ideal – and some evidence suggests livestock raised in those conditions are less likely to harbor harmful bacteria anyway.

If you do not have access to a local farmer, look for grass-fed, free-range animal products at your local store, or order them online. Keep in mind that grass-fed does not necessarily mean that the animals were not given antibiotics, as the following information explains.

Notinmyfood.org provides these additional shopping tips:

In general, consumers can also rely on “no antibiotics administered” and similar labels, especially if they are accompanied by a “USDA process Verified” shield.

In addition to these labels,  “grassfed” labels, usually found on beef, can also be useful, but require close scrutiny. If they are coupled with the “organic” label, consumers can be sure the cow was raised without antibiotics. If “grassfed” appears alone, however, antibiotics might have been given. “American Grassfed” and “Food Alliance Grassfed” labels also indicate that in addition to having been raised on grass, the animal in question received no antibiotics, but those products are available in very few stores.

Consumers should beware of several labels that are unapproved by the USDA, such as “antibiotic-free” and “no antibiotic residues”, that could mislead them to think a product was raised without any antibiotics, when in fact that may not be the case.

The organization provides the following chart consumers can use to decipher labels:

What's in a name: reading meat labels for best results!

Should you need alternatives to pharmaceutical antibiotics that are effective against superbugs, refer to this list of herbs and foods that serve as natural antibiotics.


This article was originally published at Ready Nutrition™ on July 25th, 2014

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