FDA found drugs used in food animals to be 'high risk'

Beef cattle in a barn on the Larson Farms feedlot in Maple Park, Ill.

Daniel Acker/Landov

Beef cattle in a barn on the Larson Farms feedlot in Maple Park, Ill.

According to newly released documents, the Food and Drug Administration concluded years ago that many of the antibiotics farmers use on food animals are risky for human health.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, acquired the documents through the Freedom of Information Act and published a report with the findings on Monday. The documents show that from 2001 to 2010, FDA scientists studied 30 different antibiotics that were approved decades ago, and called 18 of the drugs "high risk" because they could expose humans to antibiotic-resistant bacteria through the food supply. The NRDC says that since then, the FDA has ignored these findings.

"FDA continues to knowingly allow the use of drugs in animal feed that likely pose a 'high risk' to human health," Carmen Cordova, NRDC microbiologist and lead author of the report, said in a statement. "That's a breach of their responsibility and the public trust."

Farmers sometimes give chickens or pigs low doses of antibiotics to help them grow faster or prevent disease. Public health researchers say such non-therapeutic use can lead to drug-resistant bacteria in the animals and those microbes can infect people.

The 30 drugs reviewed by the FDA would not have been approved for non-therapeutic use under current safety guidelines either because they carried a high risk to human health or because there wasn't enough information to determine the risk, the documents show.

The FDA now is moving to phase out the non-therapeutic use of drugs to make farm animals grow faster or use feed more efficiently. But critics say that's happening too slowly.

"NRDC's report reveals that millions of pounds of antibiotics are being fed to livestock without meeting FDA's modern, or even 40-year-old, safety standards," Gail Hansen with the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming tells The Salt in an email. "That underscores just how important it is that FDA gets its new policy right and holds companies to their commitment to comply with it."

In an email, the FDA defended its policy on animal antibiotics. "The FDA is confident that its current strategy to protect the effectiveness of medically important antimicrobials, including penicillins and tetracyclines, is the most efficient and effective way to change the use of these products in animal agriculture," wrote spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey.

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