The FDA will have to require livestock growers to stop using certain antibiotics amid concerns that they are contributing to the development of superbugs, a federal judge ordered Thursday.
About 80 percent of all antibiotics in America are used in livestock in order to speed up their growth or preempt diseases caught from cramped living conditions. Recently, doctors have discovered that certain antibiotic-resistant bacteria that infect humans have developed drug resistance in livestock—something that the Centers for Disease Control and some researchers had warned for years would happen.
"It's definitely a long overdue step towards reducing the risks of developing resistant bacteria and ensuring we preserve these life-saving medicines for those who need them most—people," Avinash Kar, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who brought the case against the FDA, says. "These drugs are intended to prevent disease, not fatten up pigs and chickens."
Under the ruling, the FDA must require manufacturers of two popular classes of antibiotics, penacillins and tetracyclines, to prove that the use of their drugs in livestock doesn't contribute to the development of drug-resistant bacteria and that the drugs are safe for human consumption.
In 1977, the FDA determined that using certain antibiotics in livestock could contribute to the growth of superbugs, but did nothing to require drug makers to prove the antibiotics were safe.
"Their mandate is to protect public health," Kar says. "Unfortunately, they've caved to industry pressure in the past. We're hoping with this decision, they'll move forward to protect public health."
In his decision, U.S. Magistrate Judge Theodore Katz chastised the FDA for their inaction.
"For over thirty years, the FDA has taken the position that the widespread use of certain antibiotics in livestock for purposes other than disease treatment poses a threat to human health … the FDA never held hearings or took any further action on the proposed withdrawals. In the intervening years, the scientific evidence of the risks to human health from the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock has grown, and there is no evidence that the FDA has changed its position that such uses are not shown to be safe," he wrote.
An FDA spokesperson said it's too early for the agency to announce its next move.
"We are studying the opinion and considering appropriate next steps," she said.
In Congress, New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, the only lawmaker who is also a microbiologist, has long pushed for a reduction in the use of antibiotics in livestock. She lauded Katz's decision.
"It's about time," she said. "The evidence for ending the daily dosing of antibiotics to otherwise healthy animals is overwhelming. I'm pleased to finally see some progress and I can only hope that we see swift action from the FDA on this looming crisis."