Good news, federal regulators -- and the drug manufacturers and livestock producers you're supposed to be regulating: A federal appeals court just decided that the Food and Drug Administration doesn't have to ban the use of antibiotics in healthy animals, superbugs be damned.
The FDA concluded way back in 1977 that feeding animals low doses of antibiotics intended for humans could promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the likes of which are a major health threat. It hasn't done much since then, however, except to request that pharmaceutical companies voluntarily stop selling the drugs over-the-counter for the sole purpose of promoting growth.
In 2012, two district courts decided that the agency could -- and must -- do more, ruling that the FDA was required to hold a hearing if it determined that the non-medical use of a certain drug was unsafe. At the hearing, drug manufacturers would then be required to prove otherwise. In Thursday's 2-1 decision, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, placing the power to decide whether to hold hearings back in the hands of the FDA. It effectively allows the agency to continue its 35-year record of doing next to nothing.
Judge Robert Katzmann acknowledged as much in his dissenting opinion: “Today’s decision allows the FDA to openly declare that a particular animal drug is unsafe, but then refuse to withdraw approval of that drug,” he writes. “It also gives the agency discretion to effectively ignore a public petition asking it to withdraw approval from an unsafe drug. I do not believe the statutory scheme can be read to permit those results.”
In a statement, Robert Lawrence, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and a professor with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, called the decision "deeply disappointing," because it "allows voluntary guidelines to take the place of decisive action in confronting one of the most important public health problems of our time.”
It comes, let's not forget, while nearly every major health organization is sounding the alarm about the growing threat of antibiotic resistance; just yesterday, Thomas Frieden, the director of the CDC, warned that we're on the cusp of the "next pandemic." Frieden's speech was mostly focused on hospitals, but 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. don't go to sick people -- they're used, instead, on cattle, pigs and poultry.
“As previous court rulings made clear, FDA has failed to follow its own scientific evidence and stop this practice," added NRDC attorney Jen Sorenson. "Unfortunately, today’s Appeals Court decision effectively gives FDA a free pass to ignore the science when it is politically inconvenient."