On May 25, several environmental and health advocacy groups sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in an attempt to stop the large-scale use of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed, claiming that this practice causes the development of drug-resistant bacteria that are dangerous to humans.
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 filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Courtney Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the NRDC, said the groups aren’t suing to stop farmers from providing individual doses to sick animals. Rather, they are targeting the repeated low-level feeding of the drugs to healthy animals to promote growth and prevent illness, she said.
In a public statement, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who has introduced legislation in Congress to restrict the use of antibiotics, praised the suit. “The growth of potentially deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a looming public health crisis in America,” Slaughter said. “Today’s lawsuit is an indication of the growing concern about the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. We should be able to buy our food without worrying that eating it will expose our families to bacteria no longer responsive to medical treatments.”
But the issue is more complex than that, said Guy Loneragan, PhD, an epidemiologist and professor of food safety and public health at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He pointed to certain ionophore antibiotics, which are not used in human medicine and don’t confer cross-resistance to other drugs. “They have negligible risks to public health, but they reduce the carbon footprint of animal agriculture,” he said, explaining that cattle fed antibiotics excrete less methane than cattle not fed antibiotics.
The challenge, he said, is that people tend to adopt one of two extreme positions on the use of antibiotics in animal feed. “I don’t endorse a broad, sweeping approach to a problem that requires a case-by-case evaluation. If the risks outweigh the benefits, they should be withdrawn, but if the benefits outweigh the risks, then the use is of value to society,” he added.