There ain’t no bugs in me: Anti-antibiotics bill irks agribusiness

Are pigs hogging all the good antibiotics? A bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives assumes so, and it aims to control the overuse of the drugs in livestock and poultry production.

Penicillin, tetracycline and other antimicrobials that doctors prescribe for our strep throats are also used in factory farming. The drugs are mixed with animal feed at CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), where a crowded environment can lead to petri dish-like conditions for bacteria. Antibiotics also help animals grow faster.

And as we learned in high-school science class from Mrs. Phelps, the more bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, the more resistant some of them (sometimes called “superbugs”) get.

The bill came from the desk of the ironically named Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and she claims endorsement by 300 groups, including the American Medical Association.

Would phase out antibiotics in healthy livestock
The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) would phase out the use of antibiotics in the feed of healthy livestock and require new animal antibiotics to meet new standards. What it does not do is restrict use of antibiotics to treat sick animals or to treat pets and other animals not used for food.

Margaret Mellon, a molecular biologist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), estimated in a 2001 report that 70 percent of the antibiotic use in the United States went to animals.

“More and more Americans know someone or have personally dealt with a superbug that has put them in the hospital and required extensive rounds of high-powered medicine to fight it off,” she said. “This bill will help prevent the emergence of such superbugs by reducing the antibiotics used in animal agriculture.”

Slaughter is prepared to hoe a difficult row; agribusiness groups are scrambling to stop her.

“This is irresponsible legislation,” said Don Butler, president of the National Pork Producers Council. “We are committed to maintaining the well-being of our animals, and we need access to a range of animal health products to keep our pigs healthy and, in turn, produce safe food products. This bill will prevent that, and we’ll see more pigs die and higher production costs, and that means consumers will pay more for pork.”

Similar legislation in Senate
Cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry would be affected. Similar bills have been introduced in the past, but Slaughter said this time her bill has a chance to pass the House. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., is sponsoring similar legislation in the Senate. Among the interested parties is the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has been working on industrial farming issues for a long time.

The seven classes of drugs that would be revoked from routine use include penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides, lincosamides, streptogramins, aminoglycosides and sulfonamides.

“We’re up against a pretty strong lobby,” Slaughter told Reuters. “It will really come down to whether members of Congress want to protect their constituents or agribusiness.”

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 03/30/2009 - 12:01 pm.

    There is an easy answer to those who say that without widespread use of antimicrobials, their business model will fail and animals will suffer: look to countries where this legislation is already in place (most of the scandinavian countries, as well as outers in Europe).

    Yes, you need to keep things cleaner and give them more room. Yes, you need to keep an eye on animals, and if they get sick, then treat them. But overall, meat producers there still exist, and make a living.

    More and more data links the use of antimicrobials in farm operations with resistance seen in human pathogens- which is a huge public health problem.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/30/2009 - 01:12 pm.

    The industry’s argument, essentially that it is more concerned with the health of pigs than the public, is nearly beneath a response.

    The problem is that the resolution of this issue in our national legislature will NOT be resolved on its merits. It will be decided based upon political calculations, including the past and prospective campaign contributions of the producer organization and its partners.

    If productivity has been higher due to the use of these drugs in agri-biz, and if it should suffer as they adopt measures like Mr. Drekonja above suggests, the public will not howl at a modest, compensatory increase in price.

  3. Submitted by William Pappas on 03/30/2009 - 08:55 pm.

    The problem is this legislation is backwards. You can’t really eliminate antibiotics until you change the way livestock are raised, especially during the fattening period prior to their slaughter. If livestock are to be raised in super crowded conditions, eating feed that makes them sick, not able to move and stay healthy, sloshing about in one another’s feces and are actually genetically unhealthy there is not a prayer that they can exist without antibiotics.

    Ironically none of these animals are healthy once they are confined and allowed to eat until they can barely walk. Without the initial dose of antibiotics they’ll all be too ill to slaughter and butcher.

    What needs to be addressed are the conditions of confinement that are so ungodly unhealthy for these animals and require massive doses of drugs to survive. Once they are raised in a more natural environment all the way to market their need for antibiotics is greatly reduced if not eliminated. It may be that this bill is trying to change that confinement process through the backdoor of banning antibiotics which will ultimately make the confinement livestock business untenable. More power to them if it does.

  4. Submitted by john lopez on 03/31/2009 - 01:32 am.

    The National Pork Producers Council and factory farms in general are more concerned about profits than humane issues. As long as these agribusiness people see animals as ‘owned’ objects they will abuse them and use them until they are forced to stop. The best thing people can do is go completely vegan. You will stop the demand for tortured meat and animal by products (dairy, leather etc.) taken from animals that suffer their whole lives in abusive environments and kill the profit motive that keeps them there.

  5. Submitted by Kadiyali Srivatsa on 03/31/2009 - 01:47 am.

    Bacteria have a basic survival strategy, they colonize surfaces and grow in communities embedded in a gel-like polysaccharide matrix (biofilm). Antibiotics, antiseptics, disinfectants and chemicals cannot penetrate this gel. They are not killed by phagocytes nor destroyed by immune system but are capable of passing on their know how to other good bacteria. We now have more than ten bacteria and the army is getting bigger. How did this happen?

    By using low dose antibiotics and antiseptics, we killed good germs and the resistant ones rapidly colonize. When we try to kill antibiotic resistant bacteria, they leave their plasmid (bag of enzymes) that will be picked up by good bacteria which becomes resistant strain.

    Reducing antibiotic use is said make bacteria forget to produce the enzyme necessary to digest antibiotics and so we hope to re-use some antibiotics in the future. This is not the only option, but we have no alternative.

    Please check out latest updates in my website and add your comment.

  6. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/31/2009 - 08:54 am.

    From the April 2009 Scientific American editorial on this same subject:

    “The first study to investigate farm-bred MRSA in the U.S. – amazingly, the Food and Drug Administration has shown little interest in testing the nation’s livestock for this disease – recently found that 49% of pigs and 45% of pig workers in the survey harbored the bacteria. Unfortunately, these infections can spread. According to a report published in _Emerging Infectious Diseases_, MRSA from animals in now thought to be responsible for more than 20 percent of all human MRSA cases in the Netherlands.”

    In the summer of 2008, after many years of appeals from the scientific community, veterinarians, and responsible voices from agriculture, the FDA DID announce a ban on the broadscale use of antibiotics in farm animals, stating it was a “public health risk”.

    Then quite suddenly in December 2008, it reversed that decision.

    Someone in the FDA either feeds at the same trough as organizations like the National Pork Producers Council, or else is under the influence of someone who feeds at that trough.

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