June 1, 2011
Several environmental and health advocacy groups are frustrated enough to sue.
Who’s the one stalling on the decision? The FDA.
These petitions, filed in 1999 and 2005, center on antibiotics use not by humans, but by livestock.
To provide a bit of background, antibiotics are widely used on livestock such as chickens, turkeys, swine, cattle, and sheep, and have been since the 1950s.
The animals are only given “subtherapeutic,” or low dosage levels of the drugs, administered through their food or water.
This practice started because it appeared to make the animals grow faster using less food.
The practice also became more widespread since the 1950s as animals were increasingly raised in smaller, more crowded spaces, since it also offset the increased spread of diseases inherent therein.
However, neither of the petitions filed in the past, nor the current suit, concern themselves with the health of the animals, but instead with the health impact on humans.
The use of antibiotics doesn’t render the meat any less edible per se, but it does considerably decrease the effectiveness of antibiotics in general.
Since livestock use accounts for 80% of all current antibiotic use, it’s understandable that the impact is so significant.
One need not have an advanced education in biology to understand how this happens.
Let’s say, like so many commercials for antibiotic products advertise, that an antibiotic agent kills 99.9% of all bacteria.
That 0.1% of remaining bacteria survived because they had a natural immunity to the agent.
When they reproduce, all future bacteria will also inherit that immunity.
Naturally, for this to even be a concern to humans, humans must be susceptible to the same bacteria (which we are).
The exact specifics are obviously more complex than this, but that’s the general gist.
This health impact on humans is probably why the FDA has gotten away with postponing the decisions for so long: it’s more attenuated than most of what the FDA is used to dealing with.
For example, this issue would be far more difficult for the FDA to avoid if, say, the antibiotics were to make the meat unsafe for human consumption.
Coincidentally, a study released in April 2011 revealed that half of grocery meat in the study was infected with antibiotic resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the type of bacteria that causes staph infections.
That still doesn’t mean the meat is unsafe to consume when cooked, but handling it raw can lead to human staph infections resistant to antibiotics. Fun stuff.
So why would the FDA even want to avoid making a determination on the issue?
Believe it or not, there have been several FDA studies since 1977 that determined the practice presents a threat to human health.
However, repeated requests for further research from Congress have interfered with the FDA making any enforceable rulings on the issue. By the way, antibiotics are a multi-billion dollar industry.
Whether the issue is settled at the administrative level or in the courts remains to be seen.
In any case, while there may not be much public awareness around the issue, any ruling for the plaintiffs would nonetheless would be a landmark decision with far-reaching consequences.