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NRDC: Suing to Stop Superbugs

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Q&A with Avinash Kar, staff attorney with NRDC's health program in San Francisco. (Read his blog.)

The use of antibiotics in livestock has been a well-established problem since at least the 1970s. Why are NRDC and its partners filing a lawsuit to stop it now?

We’re filing suit now because the antibiotic-resistance crisis is reaching alarming proportions. Yet in the face of the growing scientific evidence that the use of vast amounts of antibiotics on healthy animals is a major contributor to the crisis, FDA continues to focus almost exclusively on voluntary approaches that industry might take. The coalition lawsuit is designed to get FDA to stop punting the issue and finally take meaningful action.

What’s the legal justification for the suit?

FDA concluded in 1977 that feeding animals low doses of certain antibiotics used in human medicine -- namely, penicillin and tetracyclines -- could promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can pose a health risk for people.

The law requires FDA to act on this conclusion, but FDA has failed to do so. The lawsuit would compel FDA to take action on its own findings, and move to withdraw approval for uses of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed for healthy animals.

The suit would also require the agency to respond to the citizen petitions filed in 1999 and 2005 by several of the groups involved in the lawsuit. The petitions requested that FDA take action to stop the use in healthy animals of antibiotics important to human medicine, such as those that doctors rely on to treat ailments like pneumonia, strep throat, childhood ear infections, and more serious conditions. FDA has never issued a final response to these petitions, despite regulations that require it to do so. The lawsuit would not affect the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals.

Agribusiness and the drug companies make up two of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington. What kind of opposition are you expecting from them?

We are already seeing misinformation pop up in response. For instance, the National Pork Producers Council claims there is no evidence linking the use of antibiotics on healthy livestock animals to risks to human health. Respected medical and health groups such as the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics say otherwise and have called for a stop to such use of antibiotics.

Ultimately, what’s the goal of NRDC’s lawsuit?

FDA has known for more than 30 years that mixing human antibiotics into animal feed may pose a risk to human health -- but the agency has done little to address the problem. That’s not only irresponsible, it’s illegal.

The coalition suit addresses both the failure of the FDA to limit the use of antibiotics in healthy food-producing animals and its years of delay in ruling on two citizen petitions.

NRDC is taking action with leading science and health organizations to get FDA to do its job to protect the health of our families.

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