Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Limiting nontherapeutic antibiotics in meat

U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter this week proposed a bill to limit nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in meat production. Sen. Edward Kennedy has proposed similar legislation in the Senate.

Nontherapeutic use is the dose of antibiotics routinely given to animals to enhance growth, especially in factory farm settings that bring a high risk of disease. Scientists suspect that such routine use encourages antibiotic resistance in pathogens, which evolve to survive the effects of the medicine.

Reuters reports:
The bill, introduced in the House of Representatives by Louise Slaughter and in the Senate by Edward Kennedy, would ban the use of antibiotics important to human health from being used on cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry unless animals are ill.

Drug manufacturers would be allowed to sell antibiotics for uses other than humans if they can show there is no danger to public health from microbes developing resistance to them.

"We're up against a pretty strong lobby. It will really come down to whether members of Congress want to protect their constituents or agribusiness," said Slaughter. "I do believe the chance are good, at least getting it through the House."

The bill has been introduced several times since the 1980s but has been blocked by agribusiness interests.

An estimated 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States go toward healthy livestock, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Proponents of the ban say antibiotics are given to healthy animals over a long period of time to compensate for unsanitary and crowded conditions, and to promote weight gain, rather than to combat an illness.

The concern is that the overuse of antibiotics in animals leads to new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As a result, people may be at risk of becoming sick by handling, eating meat or coming in contact with animals that have an antibiotic-resistant disease.
Does the defense by Dave Warner at the National Pork Producers Council make sense?

Dave Warner, a spokesman with the National Pork Producers Council, defended his industry.

He said 95 percent of antibiotics given to pigs are for preventing, controlling or treating disease.
If nontherapeutic use in pigs is negligible, as he says, then surely this bill is harmless from the industry perspective, right? Er, not quite:
If the bill goes into effect, Warner said piglet deaths would go up, producer costs would rise, meat output would drop and consumers would see prices climb.
All from reining in a practice that he describes as rare? Perhaps Warner is trying to slip the routine practice of giving antibiotics to healthy animals under the heading of "preventing" disease.

See also Tom Philpott's coverage at Grist.

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