We spend a lot of time here at FoodFacts.com talking about ingredients. Our site highlights controversial items in our food supply and explains what makes those ingredients a concern for our health. But there are ingredients that we won’t find listed on any label that are just as controversial for our health and safety as those that are. And those ingredients can typically be traced to fresh poultry and livestock products all over America. And they’re coming from antibiotic feed additives used for livestock and poultry.
Between 2001 and 2010, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quietly reviewed the safety of 30 penicillin and tetracycline antibiotic feed additives approved for “nontherapeutic use”. Nontherapeutic use refers to using antibiotics for growth promotion or to prevent disease in typically crowded, often unsanitary conditions in livestock and poultry. The Natural Resources Defense Council obtained the previously undisclosed review documents from the FDA as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the agency and subsequent litigation made necessary by FDA’s failure to provide any of the requested documents.
The FDA’s scientific reviewers’ findings show that none of these products would likely be approvable as new additives for nontherapeutic livestock use if submitted today, under current FDA guidelines. Eighteen of the 30 reviewed feed additives were deemed to pose a “high risk” of exposing humans to antibiotic-resistant bacteria through the food supply, based on the information available. The remainder lacked adequate data for the reviewers to make any determination and their safety remains unproven. In addition, the FDA concluded in their review that at least 26 of the reviewed feed additives do not satisfy even the safety standards set by FDA in 1973.
The FDA has not revoked any of the antibiotic additive approvals or required any drug manufacturer to resubmit a product for a new safety assessment following the agency’s reviews, though two were voluntarily withdrawn by their makers.
The significance of these findings extends far beyond the 30 antibiotic feed additives reviewed. The FDA data indicate that the types of antibiotics in the reviewed additives — tetracyclines and penicillins — together make up nearly half of all the antibiotics used in animal agriculture. Other feed additives with these same antibiotics, including generics, that are approved for similar uses would likely pose a similar risk of promoting antibiotic resistance. This risk was recognized by the FDA in 1977 when it proposed to withdraw approvals for animal feed additives containing penicillin and most tetracyclines.
The use of tetracyclines and penicillins in animal feed is part of a larger problem of antibiotic overuse. Approximately 70 percent of all sales of medically important antibiotics in the United States are for livestock use. Scientists have demonstrated that nontherapeutic use of antibiotics to raise livestock promotes drug-resistant bacteria that can migrate from livestock facilities and threaten public health. These bacteria can spread resistant traits to other bacteria, and some of these shared traits also can confer resistance to antibiotics used primarily in human medicine.
Late last year, the FDA announced a plan to phase out some antibiotics that promote weight gain. But that proposed phase out was planned as voluntary, not mandatory, and to date nothing’s been done.
We’ve all heard reports about antibiotic resistance and probable consequences — superbugs that can infect populations that may not respond to antibiotics, or more probably, everyday infections that are treated with antibiotics successfully now that could become resistant over time becoming tremendous medical problems. All the while, our livestock and poultry are fed antibiotics that can contribute to those reports. All for the sake of “bigger food.” It’s definitely time for the FDA to take action and put an end to this potential threat to the health of Americans.