Advocates say FDA should ban all non-medical use of antibiotics in animals

Living on Earth

At commercial farms, perhaps like this commercial chicken farm in Florida, antibiotics are given to animals at all times in order to keep disease at bay. (Photo by Larry Rana/USDA.)

By Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Living on Earth

Penicillin has saved more lives than any other single drug.

The world’s first antibiotic was discovered in 1928, but it wasn’t until the 1940’s, on the battlefields of World War II, that the so-called “wonder drug” was first used widely to treat infections ranging from gangrene to gunshot wounds.

In 1951 the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of antibiotics in animals after seeing how effective the drugs were in treating human infections. But by the 1970’s, the agency started to worry about bacteria resistance and decided to halt the drugs’ non-medical use.

Skip forward more than thirty years. Avinash Kar, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says that this ban was never enforced. 

“We believe that they caved into pressure from industry,” Kar said. “They say they recognize that this is a risk to human health; but we haven’t seen them step forward and put the health of American citizens first.” 

Antibiotics are given to farm animals to treat illnesses, much like in humans. But it’s the non-medical uses that the NRDC says are the problem: when farmers put antibiotics in feed and water to keep diseases at bay, and to make the animals grow larger, faster. 

In March, the NRDC won a case in federal court against the FDA. U.S. Magistrate Judge Theodore Katz presided over the case and rebuked the agency for failing to enforce their 1977 ban on the non-therapeutic use of penicillin and tetracycline in farm animals.

Kar argued the drugs are “designed to save lives and not fatten pigs and chickens, and yet we’re using more antibiotics on healthy farm animals than on sick people.” He said that farmers are not treating sick animals, but “trying to compensate for crowded and unsanitary conditions.”

On industrial farms, animals live by the hundreds, often thousands. In such crowded conditions if one chicken gets sick there’s a high chance illness will spread. So low doses of preventative drugs are given to the entire flock. And it’s these low doses that are the problem — they are low enough that the bacteria are not immediately killed, fostering those that can evolve resistance to the drugs. 

According to Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, “that’s exactly what we’re doing with sub-therapeutic use in farm animals.” 

Morris said the amount of antibiotics in the environment are wreaking havoc for humans. The Infectious Diseases Society of America reports that drug-resistant infections kill nearly 100,000 Americans each year and estimates the financial burden to the healthcare system is as high as $34 billion annually.

As a physician, Morris finds himself in a war with bacteria, trying to constantly stay one step ahead. And, as in most wars, a winner starts to emerge.

“We are seeing ... antibiotic therapies, which worked just fine 10 years ago, even five years ago,” Morris said. “Now, suddenly we’re having to go to further drug combinations; and some of the older antibiotics that we had stopped using because they had significant side effects, now sometimes they’re the only thing that will work.” 

But agricultural industry representatives claim giving antibiotics to farm animals does not pose a problem to human health and say that there is no definitive link. Dr. Liz Wagstrom, the chief veterinarian at the National Pork Producers Council, said in the Council’s last risk assessment on penicillin, “between zero and one person per century might have a disease that would be untreatable or difficult to treat because of penicillin resistance due to use of that compound in animal agriculture.” 

And supporters of prophylactic use of drugs, like Wagstrom, say without antibiotics it will be harder and more costly to raise animals. 

:Without this idea that we’re going to improve public health, it makes having more sick pigs and a higher cost of production a difficult concept to handle," Wagstrom said.

The NRDC won their suit against penicillin and tetracycline, and the FDA is deciding its next moves — appealing or following the ruling, which says the agency must require the makers of penicillin and tetracycline to prove that, when the drugs are given to farm animals, they do not harm human health.

Even if penicillin and tetracycline go off the market for farmers, there are plenty of other antibiotics to use in animals. But the NRDC is not far behind in filing additional suits. In a second lawsuit. the organization has asked the FDA to limit all non-therapeutic drug use in animals.

A ruling is expected in the next few weeks.