WASHINGTON – The Food and Drug Administration has continued to allow dozens of antibiotics to be used in feed for livestock, despite findings from its researchers that the drugs could expose humans to antibiotic-resistant bacteria through the food supply, an environmental advocacy group claimed in a new report Monday.
FDA officials reviewed about 30 animal feed additives between 2001 and 2010, rating 18 of them high risk of contributing to health problems in humans, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The remaining drugs the agency examined did not have adequate data to determine whether they were safe.
According to the NRDC, at least 26 of the feed additives reviewed by FDA researchers – some of which have been in use since the 1950s – did not meet standards set by the agency in 1973, which required companies to submit scientific studies proving the drugs were safe.
The report comes amid increasing worries in the public health world about the problem of antibiotic-resistant infections, which sicken millions of Americans each year and kill an estimated 23,000. Public health officials across the globe have warned that the misuse and overuse of antibiotics is causing more and more of the drugs to lose their effectiveness, meaning that even routine infections could become untreatable.
Carmen Cordova, an NRDC microbiologist and lead author of the analysis, called the FDAs failure to act on its own findings a breach of their responsibility and the public trust.
Avinash Kar, an NRDC attorney, said it underscores a larger pattern of FDA inaction in combating the overuse of antibiotics in animals, which scientists and doctors widely believe is contributing to the proliferation of hard-to-treat infections.
They are not meeting their responsibility to protect public health, Kar said. They need to be doing better.
The FDA did not respond to a request for comment.
The penicillin- and tetracycline-based antibiotics at the center of NRDCs analysis were approved for non-therapeutic or subtherapeutic uses, such as bolstering growth in animals or trying to prevent disease, typically among livestock living in cramped conditions.
It is unclear how many of the drugs the agency examined continue to be sold by manufacturers. NRDC researchers said they found evidence suggesting at least nine of the feed additives continue to be marketed; aside from two that companies voluntarily withdrew, all others remain approved for use.
The vast majority of antibiotics sold each year in the United States – by some estimates as much as 80 percent – are used in agriculture rather than in human medicine. Consumer and environmental groups have pressed lawmakers and regulators to do more to limit the amount of antibiotics given to animals, particularly those classes of drugs also used to treat humans.