The Trump administration has approved a maximum level of the medically important antibiotic oxytetracycline allowed in citrus fruits. The Environmental Protection Agency decision opens the door for widespread use of the drug in California, Florida and other states on crops like grapefruits, oranges and tangerines.
This week’s approval, which failed to fully assess risks to human health or endangered wildlife, comes as leading researchers caution against expanding use of antibiotics like oxytetracycline that are critical in combating certain respiratory infections like pneumonia.
“This short-term agricultural fix is a horrible precedent that ignores the dangerous, long-term implications of overusing these medically important antibiotics,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The more we use these medicines in agriculture, the more likely they’ll lose their effectiveness when people fall desperately ill.”
This week’s decision was prompted by a 2016 Geo Logic Corp. request that the EPA permanently approve oxytetracycline for use as a pesticide to suppress citrus greening disease on roughly 700,000 acres of citrus trees in states like Florida and California.
The EPA has indicated that it intends to approve this request, but it has yet to issue a final approval. The establishment of an allowable level or “tolerance” on food crops is one of the last steps in the approval process.
In setting the tolerance level the EPA failed to analyze how the antibiotic could affect gut bacteria in humans that play a critical role in digestion, metabolism and immune system health.
The agency also failed to assess how fruit trees treated with the antibiotic year after year could affect the development of human pathogens resistant to the tetracycline class of antibiotics. And the EPA failed to consider the potential harm increased use of the antibiotic could cause to the nation’s most endangered wildlife.
In 2016 the EPA approved an emergency use of up to 1.6 million pounds of oxytetracycline and streptomycin, another medically important antibiotic, on citrus trees in Florida. This was followed by another emergency approval in 2017 for Florida and for Florida and California in 2018.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant organisms each year, leading to an estimated 23,000 deaths.
“We’re using more of these antibiotics on fruit trees than to treat disease in humans,” said Donley. “Citrus greening disease is a serious issue, but using important antibiotics with limited effectiveness against the disease isn’t the solution.”
Antibiotics such as oxytetracycline and streptomycin have transformed human and veterinary medicine, making once-lethal infections and diseases readily treatable and curable. For more than 10 years the World Health Organization has recognized these drugs as being “highly important” or “critically important” to human medicine.
But the misuse and overuse of antibiotics has resulted in the spread of bacteria resistant to them, triggering growing international concern over the continuing long-term ability of these drugs to tackle disease.