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Appeals Court Rules FDA Can Continue Allowing Antibiotics in Animal Feed

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A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may continue its policy of allowing widespread antibiotic use in animal feed - a practice believed by many to contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or superbugs.

In a 2-1 ruling, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York said the FDA could reject two citizen petitions challenging the use of antibiotics such as penicillin and tetracyclines in feed for animals raised for human consumption, even when those animals are not sick. The decision Thursday is a reversal of a lower court ruling on a suit, filed by several consumer advocacy groups, that had called on the FDA to hold hearings reviewing new scientific evidence on the regular use of antibiotics in livestock feed.

Despite a 1977 declaration that the widespread use of antibiotics in animal feed was unsafe, the FDA in 2011 rejected the two citizen petitions and opted not to hold the hearings, either. But a district court in New York in 2012 ruled on behalf of the National Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups that sued the agency, calling for a ban on use of antibiotics for food animals when they were not sick.

However, the federal appeals court said Thursday that it was up to the FDA, not the courts, to decide how to deal with the problem. "It is not for us to determine whether [the FDA] has been prudent or imprudent, wise or foolish, effective or ineffective in its approach to this problem," the judges wrote in the majority opinion (PDF). "Whether the agency's long inaction in the face of dangers highlighted in the [1977 FDA report] represented politically-inspired foot-dragging or wise caution in developing a cost-effective approach, it was for the agency, and not the courts, to determine how best to proceed."  

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