A coalition of public health and environmental advocates petitioned the Food and Drug Administration yesterday to ban the use of seven classes of antibiotics commonly used on farms to speed the growth of livestock.
On Capitol Hill, Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) reintroduced a bill that would require the same thing.
The advocates and legislators said widespread use of the antibiotics on farms is jeopardizing the effectiveness of closely related antibiotics used to treat human disease. Because bacteria inevitably grow resistant to antibiotics they encounter, increased use -- whether to treat children or increase the size of chickens and hogs -- will result in greater resistance and gradually make the drugs ineffective, scientists say.
The FDA, which took the unusual step of trying to ban the agricultural use of one class of antibiotics in 2000, is assessing whether it should do the same with others, including penicillins and tetracyclines. The earlier action has been tied up by a legal challenge by the manufacturer. The petition, filed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Environmental Defense, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Public Health Association and the Food Animal Concerns Trust, asks the agency to hasten that process.
"While we hope that the FDA will quickly grant the petition, history demonstrates that the FDA can take up to 20 years to withdraw an agricultural drug from the market," said Karen Florini, a lawyer with Environmental Defense. The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that animals consume 70 percent of antibiotics used yearly in the United States. The Animal Health Institute, which represents the brand-name makers of animal drugs, says that figure is much too high.
The institute and public health advocates disagree about how much of antibiotic use on farms is to treat sick animals and how much is to promote growth. Some antibiotics are added directly to feed to make animals grow faster, while other drugs are given only when animals are sick or in danger of becoming sick.
Institute President Alexander S. Mathews said the petition and legislation are unnecessary and based on bad science.
"This effort to ban products is misguided and will result in unintended consequences, including increased animal death and suffering," he said. "Scientific evidence, including government monitoring and surveillance data, demonstrates the careful use of antibiotics in food animals has public health benefits that far outweigh the very small risks."