The same groups that did a pretty good job last year of convincing former CBS news anchor Katie Couric that giving antibiotics to the healthy animals we eat is not a good idea now have decided to try their arguments on a big city federal judge.

They’ve sued FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan). In a complaint filed Wednesday, they ask that the Food and Drug Administration be ordered to withdraw its approvals for the nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics in livestock.

If successful, it would mean antibiotics could not be used in animal feed and water to spur growth or for other non-medical purposes. The CBS News series last year suggesting such action was needed was met with stiff criticism from America’s animal agriculture industry, which says those seeking to restrict antibiotic uses are using unsupported assertions.

Four of the suing groups — the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), Public Citizen, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) — have twice petitioned FDA to take action on its own, once in 1999 and again in 2005.

FDA never issued a final response to either petition, the groups say. FDA did issue a draft policy guidance document last year and has been moving toward a two-prong approach of limiting the use of certain antibiotics to help livestock growth and putting more responsibility on licensed veterinarians to supervise antibiotic use in food animals.

But that strikes some public health experts as asking the fox to guard the proverbial chicken house, as the American Veterinary Medical Association is a longtime opponent of any restrictions on food-animal antibiotic use.

The groups — the fifth being the Natural Resources Defense Council — want the approvals for subtherapeutic uses of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed withdrawn. And they want FDA to issue final responses to their petitions by a court-ordered deadline.

In their 25-page complaint, the groups charge “the misuse and overuse of antibiotics has given rise to a growing and dangerous trend of antibiotic resistance.”

They say bacteria resistant to one or more antibiotics are making it difficult to treat human infections, requiring longer and more expensive hospitals stays, and resulting in more fatalities.

The complaint quotes an Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences warning that “the specter of untreatable infections — a regression to the pre-antibiotic era — is looming just around the corner.”

The complaint also reaches back more than 30 years to 1977, when FDA first found that feeding animals antibiotics used in human medicine — penicillin and tetracyclines — could promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria able to infect people.

The filing of the lawsuit caught the attention of Maryn McKenna, food-policy journalist and blogger who wrote the book “SUPERBUG,” (, which tells the story of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

“What’s fascinating about this suit is its careful recounting of the number of times the FDA tried to do the right thing in limiting growth promoters, until various Congressional actors forced the agency to back down,” McKenna told Food Safety News.  “I don’t know enough about the courts and federal agencies to know whether the suit will achieve the results it asks for — but in its making public the history of non-action on agricultural antibiotic overuse, it establishes that this isn’t a scientific question anymore, but a political one.”

(The author of SUPERBUG expands on her comments in her own post.)

The only microbiologist in Congress also commented in the lawsuit.

“The growth of potentially deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a looming public health crisis in America,” said U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-NY, in a news release.  “Today’s lawsuit is an indication of the growing concern about the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. We should be able to buy our food without worrying that eating it will expose our families to bacteria no longer responsive to medical treatments. The FDA needs to take common sense steps to reduce the needless use of antibiotics in healthy animals, and protect human beings.”    

Slaughter has sponsored legislation to limit the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture since 2007 without success.