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.”