Cattle battle over antibiotics continues to rattle

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While there have long been concerns about the risks of antibiotic overuse in humans, it remains far less clear whether there are similar risks of resistant bacteria when such antibiotics are given to livestock. But a recent U.S. District Court ruling is erring on the side of caution, directing the FDA to initiate proceedings to withdraw certain antibiotics from use in livestock feed until or unless the drugs, when used as growth promoters, can be shown as unlikely to produce resistant germs. (When used to treat or prevent infection, the drugs will remain approved.)

Last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with other advocacy groups, sued to force the FDA to take action on the agency s 1977 plan to evaluate banning some antibiotic use in livestock. Proponents of such a ban cite concerns that the use of antibiotics in livestock could promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could later infect humans.

According to the new ruling, the FDA will move toward withdrawing penicillin and tetracycline from livestock feed until manufacturers can provide evidence that such antibiotic use does not pose a risk of promoting antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. This follows a decision earlier this year when a class of antibiotics known as cephalosporins was ordered to be withdrawn from use in livestock by this April.

There are certainly multiple sides to this issue: On the one hand, as ACSH s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan points out, preventing farmers from using antibiotics as growth promoters in their livestock feed will adversely affect productivity. Furthermore, It s essentially impossible to definitively prove that something is safe, she says, so it seems highly likely that the antibiotics will have to go.

Yet ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross notes that, depending on the antibiotic, there may be some real concerns about developing resistance to essential drugs in humans. Cephalosporins, in particular, are too important a class of antibiotics for their use in livestock to be warranted we can t risk promoting the growth of cephalosporin-resistant bacteria, he observes.