WASHINGTON — Meat industry groups and associations recently held a series of briefings with legislators in Washington to argue that continued access to Food and Drug Administration-approved antibiotics is vital to the livestock and poultry industries.
Antibiotics have been used on food animals since the middle of the 20th century, and the practice rarely raised concern until the past decade, when a growing faction of scientists began to suggest that there is a link between antibiotics used in agriculture and the emergence of several strains of antibiotic-resistant pathogens that could affect human health.
Scientists and activists who say that the use of antibiotics on farms should be curbed are not looking to ban antibiotics used to help sick animals return to good health. Instead, they are arguing against the widespread practice of using antibiotics on healthy animals. These “subtherapeutic” antibiotics are typically mixed in with livestock and poultry feed. They help prevent illnesses from spreading through flocks and herds, and also cause animals to grow faster.
Senate Bill 619 and House Bill 1549 were introduced in Congress last year in an effort to ban the use of many subtherapeutic antibiotics. The bills' supporters believe that the overuse of antibiotics in animals is leading to antibiotic-resistant pathogens — such as antibiotic-resistant salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli — and that the potential risks posed by these new strains far outweigh the benefits of using the drugs on livestock and poultry. Those in the meat industry who oppose the bills say they believe antibiotic use in healthy animals is necessary to the health of the industry as a whole, and argue that there is no definitive scientific evidence linking antibiotic resistance in humans to the use of antibiotics in food animals.
“The use of antibiotics is one reason why the U.S. food supply is the best in the world,” said Sherrie Rosenblatt, spokeswoman for the National Turkey Federation, adding that antibiotics have been used for more than 50 years to treat bacterial infections and maintain the health and well-being of turkey flocks.
“The responsible use of antibiotics helps to advance public health, food safety, animal health and animal well-being.”
David Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, agreed, adding that antibiotics are used for disease prevention and control with the intention of protecting herd health. He said that without them, diseases would spread more quickly, resulting in increased death among the animals, thereby putting food animal producers out of business, cutting supply and increasing prices.
“Antibiotic resistance is a very, very complicated issue,” Warner said. He believes opponents of these drugs are oversimplifying the issue.
“All of the animal health products that are given to animals have to go through an FDA approval process, and they make the manufacturer prove that the drug is safe for the animal, safe for the environment and, in the case of a food animal, that it's safe for humans too.”
Warner added that the antibiotics used in disease prevention for animals are not used in humans.
“So if they're not used in human medicine, they aren't the cause of antibiotic resistance,” he said.
But, since many subtherapeutic antibiotics given to healthy animals are also growth promoters that help animals absorb feed more efficiently, those who want the drugs banned argue that the industry just wants to use antibiotics as the solution to the consequences of animal overcrowding.
The Organic Trade Association said it believes this kind of legislation is needed and that with inexpensive improvements in animal husbandry practices, it would not be necessary to give healthy animals routine doses of antibiotics.
“OTA has signed on to endorse the legislation,” spokeswoman Barbara Haumann said. “Basically, the evidence has been showing that there are definitely repercussions of using the low levels, the subtherapeutic levels of antibiotics. Even the American Medical Association has come out against that, so really just for human safety, [we need] to make sure there will be antibiotics that will be effective for humans.”
The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also hosted a recent briefing on Capitol Hill, showcasing profitable production and business models for raising food animals without the routine use of antibiotics.
“I think there's little evidence that there would be a devastating effect or even a significant negative effect on the industry,” said Lance Price, senior science advisor for Pew. “The potential risks of continuing to use massive amounts of antibiotics in food animal production greatly outweighs any essential threat to the industry. We are in a public health crisis right now with antibiotic resistance.”
Haumann agreed, noting that the organic industry believes animals can be raised without subtherapeutic levels of antibiotics and that producers of conventionally raised animals should be concerned about future trade implications if they continue to use antibiotics in healthy animals.
“Other countries are saying that they're not going to allow this and they've banned it in their countries, to not have antibiotic growth promoters in animal feed,” she said. “The European Union, New Zealand, Thailand and [South] Korea — they've either banned it or will begin banning it, and so what's going to happen is those trading partners who implement this kind of ban can refuse imports that do not meet the standards.”
In fact, several U.S. companies have taken steps to acknowledge consumer concerns about antibiotic use in food animals. In 2005, McDonald's asked its poultry suppliers to eliminate the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in the broilers destined for McDonald's. And, “no antibiotics, no artificial hormones” labels have become widespread during the past few years, as suppliers respond to consumer concerns about these issues.
But, industry sources on both sides of the issue agree that it is unlikely that the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA, will receive significant attention this year as the focus remains on health care reform and job creation.
“However, the effort to educate policymakers will continue to ensure that sound science drives decision making, not politics,” Rosenblatt of the NTF said.
Prince of Pew said he believes PAMTA is a fairly conservative piece of legislation, as it still allows for antibiotic use in the treatment of sick animals.
“I think that the opposition is now having a lot of closed-door sessions with Congress people and so we'll see as the opposition ramps up its efforts where this goes, but we're hopeful that public health will win out on this one,” Prince told SN.
“I think that everybody, especially in a strapped industry like this, everybody is concerned about impact and afraid to make changes because of potential negative impacts on the industry, but I think in this context, the evidence for there being negative impact is pretty low and the potential negative impact on humans of continuing this practice is actually fairly high.”