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Public outpouring calling on FDA to stop the misuse of antibiotics in livestock for real

Avinash Kar

Posted July 13, 2012 in Health and the Environment

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Over two hundred thousand Americans have written to the FDA to demand a better solution for antibiotic misuse in livestock. They were responding to the toothless new guidelines—mere recommendations that industry is free to ignore and full of loopholes at that—that FDA released as its preferred approach to addressing the rising public health threat of antibiotic resistance associated with the dangerous misuse of antibiotics in livestock.

Here are some key stats from what we know about the letters submitted so far:

  • Almost 220,000 citizens
  • 44 hospitals
  • Over 350 doctors, nurses, and healthcare professionals in the Health Care Without Harm network and over 500 health professionals in the Healthy Food Action network
  • 6 progressive businesses already working to provide their customers with livestock products raised without antibiotics (Applegate, Bon Appétit Management Company, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Niman Ranch Pork Company, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm)
  • 270 chefs from across the United States
  • At least 58 organizations, spanning medical, health, business, consumer, farming, environmental, veterinarian, and food-focused groups

The letters call on the FDA to do better. They tell the FDA that mandatory requirements are necessary to stop the misuse of antibiotics on animals that are not sick and to eliminate the loopholes in the FDA’s proposed recommendations so that they might potentially serve as a useful addition to mandatory regulations. (Click here to see the letter NRDC sent in addition to the coalition letter we signed.)

Here’s a reminder of why this issue is so important. 80% of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used on livestock, the vast majority on animals that are not sick, to make them grow fatter faster and to compensate for unsanitary and crowded conditions. This overuse of antibiotics in livestock is a leading contributor to the rise of dangerous "superbugs"—bacteria that develop resistance to the commonly prescribed antibiotics we rely on when we get infections. More and more, doctors are struggling to treat these types of infections, and many become fatal. When antibiotics don’t work as well as they used to, illnesses can last longer, can lead to more hospitalizations, can require the use of stronger antibiotics with greater side effects, and can even result in death when a bacteria that is causing the infection is resistant to all antibiotics that can be used to kill it.

Recent reports link antibiotic resistant bacteria found in chicken to painful urinary tract infections affecting 8 million women in the U.S. that are resistant to a cure (see this ABC News report). The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 99,000 people died of hospital-acquired infections in 2002, the most recent year for which data are available. According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the vast majority of those infections were caused by antibiotic-resistant "superbugs." The Institute of Medicine warns that "the specter of untreatable infections - a regression to the pre-antibiotic era - is looming just around the corner" if antibiotic resistance is not addressed. (For more about the issue of antibiotic use in livestock, see my past blogs: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/akar/.)

The outpouring of feedback to the FDA from citizens and from groups focused on our health, food, and environment, shows that consumers are becoming more aware of this threat to their health and are ready for serious action to protect the public interest. It’s also a clarion call for the FDA to stop dragging its feet and to move decisively to curtail the unnecessary use of antibiotics in livestock.

The ball is in the FDA’s court. It needs to start prioritizing public health and stop protecting the profits of the industries that are putting our medicines and health at risk.

Note: I want to be sure to acknowledge that the letters submitted to FDA reflect the great work of a broad coalition of groups, including: Farm Aid,  Food and Water Watch, Food Democracy Now, Consumers Union, True Food Now, the Keep Antibiotics Working Coalition, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), Pew Charitable Trusts, Health Care Without Harm, CREDOMobile, Union of Concerned Scientists, Family Farmed, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Chefs Collaborative, and, of course, NRDC.

*This blog was updated on Friday, July 13, with the note above and on Monday, July 16, with the information about the letters from healthcare professionals in the Healthy Food Action network.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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