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FDA allows antibiotics in animal feed despite potential risk to human health, report claims

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 FDA’s 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 immediately respond to a request for comment.

The penicillin- and tetracycline-based antibiotics at the center of NRDC’s 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.

Although the FDA has sent letters to some companies seeking more information about concerns that the drugs might promote antibiotic-resistance, the documents obtained by NRDC did not show that the agency took further action or that the companies submitted additional safety studies, the report states.

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.

In the fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alarming report detailing the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant infections. Although most infections arise in hospitals and nursing homes, officials underscored the massive use of antibiotics in animals as a looming concern.

“Resistant bacteria can contaminate the foods that come from those animals, and people who consume these foods can develop antibiotic-resistant infections,” the CDC’s report stated. “The use of antibiotics for promoting growth is not necessary, and the practice should be phased out.”

The FDA seems to agree. In 1977, the agency said it planned to withdraw approval for some animal antibiotics, especially those used for nonmedical reasons. But for decades, the agency took no action, even as the NRDC sued in recent years trying to force it to follow through.

In December, the FDA took long-awaited steps aimed at scaling back the use of antibiotics in livestock. The agency asked animal drug manufacturers to alter their labels so that farmers would no longer be allowed to use antibiotics merely to promote growth. It also wants farmers to get approval from a veterinarian before administering the drugs to livestock.

The move drew mixed reaction.

Representatives of the agricultural industry largely welcomed the changes, saying it would lead to meaningful changes for how antibiotics are used on the farm. Consumer advocates and some public health officials were less than impressed, especially because the FDA’s recommendations are voluntary. Kar, the NRDC attorney, called it a “hollow gesture.” Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., who repeatedly has sought legislation to rein in the use of antibiotics in animals, said the FDA action fell “woefully short” of what was needed.

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