Petition: FDA Needs To Act On Antibiotics

By Steve Blackledge
Public Health Program Director

Today we joined NRDC in a petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, challenging the agency to do what the law requires of it — protect the health of Americans from the misuse of antibiotics.  

Our petition centers on the inappropriate use of antibiotics on large industrial farms that routinely give our life-saving medicines to animals that aren’t sick. The danger to public health stems from the fact that this practice breeds superbugs, i.e. bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics that for generations have kept us safe from infectious disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year in America, 2 million people become ill and 23,000 die from antibiotic-resistant infections. 

Many who have followed our work on this issue may be more familiar with our successful campaigns in the last year and a half to get McDonald’s and Subway to make significant commitments to stop serving meat from farms that misuse antibiotics. (The McDonald’s announcement was for chicken only, and I’ll resist the pun.) But before turning our focus to large restaurant chains, we pushed hard to convince the Obama administration to take additional steps to keep antibiotics working. Among the many efforts to convince the administration, we wrote and released this report about the almost certain failure of FDA voluntary guidelines for addressing antibiotic overuse on livestock and poultry. 

In sum, we said the guidelines would fail because they addressed only one of two reasons that farms routinely dose their flocks and herds with antibiotics: weight gain. The other reason is as a prophylactic against disease, and even if farms were blocked from using antibiotics for weight gain, with a wink and a nod they could use the drugs against disease prevention and get the added benefit of weight gain. In other words, nothing changes. 

When we didn't convince the Obama administration or the FDA to take additional steps, we moved on to the marketplace, where our wins will at some point make the politics smoother. After all, if we can get to the point where much of the industry has taken action, it’ll be easier, politically, to regulate the laggards. 

But back to today … we’re thrilled to re-enter FDA territory and join NRDC, CALPIRG, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, and Public Citizen in filing this petition. Much has changed since the last petition on this matter was filed, including: one, more evidence links antibiotic overuse in agriculture to human sickness from antibiotic resistant infections; two, new data point to the fact that existing FDA voluntary guidelines are insufficient at best; and three, the largest state in the union, California, recognized the shortcomings of FDA guidelines and passed a law to prohibit inappropriate use.  

It’s time for the FDA to also act in order to keep antibiotics working, and the time is now. 

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