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Antibiotics in animals tied to risk of human infection

By Sabrina Tavernise
New York Times

A federal analysis of 30 antibiotics used in animal feed found that the majority of them were likely to be contributing to the growing problem of bacterial infections that are resistant to treatment in people, according to documents released this week by a health advocacy group.

The analysis, conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and covering 2001 to 2010, was detailed in internal records that the nonprofit group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and subsequent litigation.

In the documents, some of which were reviewed by The New York Times, scientists from the FDA studied 30 penicillin and tetracycline additives in animal feed. They found that 18 of them posed a high risk of exposing humans to antibiotic-resistant bacteria through food.

Resistant bacteria make it difficult and sometimes impossible to treat infections with ordinary antibiotics. The scientists did not have enough data to judge the other 12 drugs.

At least 2 million Americans fall sick every year and about 23,000 die from antibiotic-resistant infections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. Representatives of the food industry largely blame hospitals and treatments given to people for the rise of deadly superbugs. But many scientists believe that indiscriminate use of antibiotics in animal feed is a major contributor.

Farmers and ranchers feed small amounts of the drugs to animals over their lifetimes to keep them healthy in crowded conditions, causing bacteria to develop a resistance passed on to people through the environment and eating meat from the animals.

In 1977, the FDA proposed withdrawing approvals for animal feed additives containing penicillin and most tetracyclines, but it never followed through, said Avinash Kar, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The group sued the agency in 2012 to try to force it to carry out the 1977 proposal.

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