Court: FDA must address antibiotics in livestock

generic pig livestock antibiotics feed pork farm

A federal court has ruled the FDA must address antibiotic overuse in animal feed. That decision came last night in a lawsuit filed by public interest groups including Public Citizen. "It is unfortunate that FDA has dragged its feet for so long on this issue, but we are pleased that the Court has ordered FDA finally to do its job," said Michael Kirkpatrick, a Public Citizen attorney.

The controversy dates back to 1977 when the FDA determined that the practice of fattening up animals by feeding them antibiotics used in human medicine, such as penicillin, could promote resistant bacteria in people. Yet the FDA has never moved to take action on its own findings, according to another plaintiff in the lawsuit, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The NRDC says 70 percent of antibiotics used in the US are fed in low doses to healthy farm animals, such as pigs, cows, chicken and turkeys, "to promote faster growth and compensate for unsanitary living conditions."

The court's ruling compels the FDA to withdraw approval for most non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in animal feed unless, in public hearings, the drug use in animals is proven safe for humans. In its decision, the court stated: "Research has shown that the use of antibiotics in livestock leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be--and has been--transferred from animals to humans through direct contact, environmental exposure, and the consumption and handling of contaminated meat and poultry products."

"Thanks to the Court's order, drug manufacturers will finally have to do what FDA should have made them do 35 years ago: prove that their drugs are safe for human health, or take them off the market," said the NRDC.

An FDA spokesman told CBS News "We are studying the opinion and considering appropriate next steps."

Use of antibiotics in healthy animals has skyrocketed in recent years. Public watchdogs filed suit against the FDA last year when it was then that the agency announced it would not pursue a ban of antibiotic use in healthy animals, and instead planned to offer guidelines suggesting voluntary alternatives to the agriculture industry.

  • Sharyl Attkisson
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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.