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Five non-profit organizations have brought a lawsuit against the FDA, claiming that the agency has violated its mandate by continuing to allow nontherapeutic antibiotic use in livestock.
 
The Union of Concerned Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animals Concern Trust and Public Citizen claim that FDA is legally obligated, under the Food and Drug Act, to ban the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animals, including for prophylaxis and growth promotion.

Citing research that links widespread animal antibiotic use with the development of antibiotic resistance, the complaint alleges that “[f]or more than thirty years, FDA has failed to comply with its statutory duty, after notice and opportunity for hearing, to withdraw approval of subtherapeutic uses of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed.” Additionally, the organizations cite the FDA on failing to issue a final response to petitions filed in 1999 (CSPI, FACT, Public Citizen, UCS) and 2005 (FACT, UCS) requesting action on the issue.

Approximately 80% of antibiotics sold in the United States are used in animals, most nontherapeutically.   Concern over the growing problem of antibiotic resistance has recently put the practice under a spotlight. According to research cited in the lawsuit, antibiotic resistant infections cost the U.S between $16.6. and $26 billion each year. Agriculture groups deny that there is a connection between antibiotic use in animals and resistant infections in humans.

FDA is no stranger to the issue of antibiotics in livestock production. As the case points out, the agency began examining the problem in the mid-1960s, and has frequently raised concern about the human health implications of widespread, nontherapeutic antibiotic use in the livestock industry. Last summer, FDA released draft guidance recommending an end to the practice (learn more about the move here), but as of yet the recommendations are voluntary and unenforced.

“Accumulating evidence shows that antibiotics are becoming less effective, while our grocery store meat is increasingly laden with drug-resistant bacteria," said NRDC executive director Peter Lehner. "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.”   

The case is a judicial equivalent to the recently re-introduced PAMTA (Preserving Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act) legislation, which also seeks to ban nontherapeutic use of several classes of medically relevant antibiotics. 

Image credit: Flickr: ABMJG