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factory farms, antibiotics, livestock, food safety, free-range farms

FDA Seeks to Restrict Antibiotics in Livestock; What Do Consumers Need to Know?

July 14, 2009 05:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
The Obama administration plans to ban certain antibiotics in farm animals in order to reduce dangerous bacteria in humans. But some experts say the ban could be detrimental to the food supply.

Significant Changes Proposed

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Representative Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat, has proposed banning the use of seven types of antibiotics in livestock. Slaughter also suggests restricting other antibiotics to only "therapeutic and some preventative uses," according to Gardiner Harris of The New York Times.

The proposal is supported by Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the principal deputy commissioner of food and drugs, and by the Obama administration. Giving antibiotics to healthy farm animals "to encourage rapid growth," and administering antibiotics "without the supervision of a veterinarian," can lead to "the development of bacteria that are immune to many treatments," according to Sharfstein.

Frighteningly, the FDA reports that 2 million Americans contract bacterial infections during hospital stays annually, and "70 percent of the infections are resistant to at least one antibiotic," according to Reuters.

The proposal would begin phasing out "nontherapeutic use" of seven types of antibiotics: aminoglycosides, lincosamides, macrolides, penicillins, streptogramins, sulfonamides, tetracyclines "and any other drug used to treat bacterial illness in people," Reuters reported. Although identical bans were presented to the House and Senate in March, Monday's hearing marks the first before the House Rules Committee, a significant step.

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Background: Previous recommendations to stop antibiotics use

A report led by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health titled, "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America," was discussed by Agri-View, a Wisconsin agricultural newspaper, in 2008.

The report recommended an end to both "non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics" and "intensive confinement" of farm animals, problems seen most in hog and poultry farming. The evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, caused by giving antibiotics to livestock, "makes the medicines less effective in treating people," the authors of the report claimed.

Reaction: Agricultural groups respond to possible antibiotics ban

According to an article by The Food and Fiber Letter, published on Entrepreneur, Slaughter's proposal was introduced to Congress in April, and was promptly criticized by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

Both groups said the ban on antibiotics would be detrimental to poultry and livestock health, and could make the food supply less safe. In support of its claim, NPPC pointed to Denmark's ban on certain antibiotics, instituted in 1999, which may have led to more piglet deaths. The NPPC also cited a 2000 survey, which suggested, "96 percent of antibiotic resistance in humans is due to human use of antibiotics."

Opinion & Analysis: The role of antibiotics in factory farming

In a May 2009 editorial for the San Jose Mercury News, Mark Schlosberg tied "industrialized animal production" to human illness. He discussed the theory that swine flu may have originated at an industrial hog farm in Mexico, and cited a 2003 study by Science magazine suggesting that "increased flu vaccinations of hogs, may be accelerating the evolution of new swine flu variants."

Regardless of where swine flu began, Schlosberg asserted, the U.S. must address the "low doses of antibiotics" that have been given to "boost animals' growth and counteract the effects of unhygienic factory farm conditions" since the 1950s. There is "clear scientific evidence" of the harms of such practices, Schlosberg asserted, and already the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, among others, "have called for a ban on the practice," he reported.
In an article for The Poultry Site, Adam Anson outlines the rise in antibiotics use in livestock in the U.S., and concedes that "[w]ithout antibiotics, intensive livestock systems may never have become a lucrative form of trade."

But the issue has now been given a human face, and must be considered apart from the industry of agriculture, Anson suggests. He notes comments by Dr. David Wallinga of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "There is solid consensus among medical and public health officials that the profligate use of antibiotics in both human medicine and animal agriculture is eroding the efficacy of our arsenal of antibiotics," Wallinga said.

The issue is not confined to North America.

In March, according to Farmers Guardian, the U.K. Soil Association called for the government to "take action to reduce the use of antibiotics in UK farming." The request followed the release of a documentary film showing the growing prevalence of a new MSRA strain in European pigs. An annual national health report by U.K. chief medical officer Liam Donaldson also said that "'very large' quantities of antibiotics" used by farmers "could pose a threat to human health."

Related Topic: Livestock antibiotics impact other crops

According to ScienceDaily in 2007, antibiotics are often present in animal manure, commonly used as crop fertilizer. A study by scientists at the University of Minnesota revealed that antibiotics showed up in plant leaves and in the tubers of root vegetables. Although plants' ability "to absorb antibiotics raises the potential for contamination of human food supply," researchers say they are unsure of the negative effects that might result from eating plants containing trace amounts of antibiotics.
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