Federal Judge Orders F.D.A. to Restrict Use of Antibiotics in Livestock

Judge Theodore H. Katz of the Southern District of New York ordered the Obama administration to alert drug makers that the government may soon ban the common agricultural use of popular antibiotics in animals because it may lead to the proliferation of dangerous infections.

The order comes two months after the Obama administration announced restrictions on the uses of cephalosporins, a critical class of antibiotics that includes drugs like Cefzil and Keflex. They are commonly used to treat pneumonia, strep throat and skin and urinary tract infections. The F.D.A. is expected to issue new rules that would bar the use of penicillin and tetracycline, used in animal feed to further growth. A decade ago, the F.D.A. banned indiscriminate agricultural use of a powerful class of antibiotics, called fluoroquinolones, that includes the medicine Cipro.

Microbiologists and other medical researchers believe the use of these antibiotics in livestock leads to the growth of bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotic treatments.

A vast majority of antibiotics used in the United States goes to treat animals, not humans. Meanwhile, outbreaks of illnesses from antibiotic-resistant bacteria have grown in number and severity.

Environmental and health groups petitioned the F.D.A. in 1999 and 2005 to restart the process to ban the drugs from being overused on farms. In January, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen and the Union of Concerned Scientists filed suit against the F.D.A. On Thursday, Judge Katz ruled that these groups had won their case without need for a trial.

“The rise of superbugs that we see now was predicted by F.D.A. in the ’70s,” said Jen Sorenson, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Thanks to the court’s order, drug manufacturers will finally have to do what F.D.A. should have made them do 35 years ago: prove that their drugs are safe for human health, or take them off the market.”

Judge Katz ordered the F.D.A. to alert drug manufacturers of its intention to end its approval for popular uses of penicillin and tetracycline to promote growth in animals.

If the companies have evidence that the drugs are safe for humans, the drugs can continue to be used as they are in agriculture.

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