By Emily Stephenson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A coalition of consumer advocacy groups is suing the Food and Drug Administration to force a ban on antibiotics in animal feed if they are not being used to treat illnesses, claiming they lead to drug-resistant 'superbugs'.
"We've been fighting the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock for over thirty long years," Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a statement.
"We hope this lawsuit will finally compel the FDA to act with an urgency commensurate with the magnitude of the problem."
The FDA, which regulates the use of antibiotics in livestock, allows some nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics in feed even though it said 30 years ago that those practices were unsafe, according to the lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Those drugs, usually given in doses too low to treat disease, are used for such purposes as promoting growth in animals.
In 1977, the FDA said that using penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed could lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could harm humans who eat the meat, according to the lawsuit.
The FDA has collected comments on draft rules to restrict medically important antibiotics to only necessary, health-related animal uses.
Several of the consumer groups have previously filed petitions asking regulators to ban nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed.
An FDA spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), one of the groups involved with the lawsuit, also filed a petition on Wednesday calling for the U.S. Agriculture Department to require testing ground meat and poultry for antibiotic-resistant bacteria and to ban the sale of products containing four strains of Salmonella.
Hormel Food Corp recently recalled Jennie-O turkey burgers after reports of illnesses tied to one of those strains, Salmonella Hadar. That strain is resistant to many antibiotics, making illnesses harder to treat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We need USDA to act before we see more serious outbreaks and more consumers with virtually untreatable illnesses," Sarah Klein, a staff attorney with CSPI. said during a conference call. "The case is clear USDA must get in front of this problem and prevent these serious illnesses from occurring."
(Reporting by Emily Stephenson)