It’s in February in Edgerton, Minn., and Randy Spronk is tending to his pigs. The temperature inside is a pleasant 68º  F, but dozens of the month-old hogs are sick. In addition to treating the ill ones, Spronk gives antibiotics to the healthy pigs before they, too, become sick.

But if some lawmakers and groups opposed to modern food-animal production have their way, pork producers like Spronk won’t be able to use antibiotics to treat pigs. They claim the drugs are overused and that this is causing antibiotic resistance in humans.

The U.S. pork industry has been dealing with such charges for years, and there’s a tendency to dismiss threats that impose restrictions on antibiotic use as so much hot air.

But news reports linking hog farms and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a report on the relationship between “large” livestock and poultry operations and antimicrobial resistance, and Congress’ need to reauthorize the Animal Drug User Fee Act of 2003, may create a “perfect storm” that prompts a ban on some animal antibiotics. Coupled with already high feed costs, it could wreak havoc on pork producers.

Without certain antibiotics, animal well-being would suffer and pork producers likely would see higher herd mortality rates. In Denmark, where antibiotic growth promotants were banned in 2000, producers have seen a 25 percent increase in pig deaths due to illnesses. A 2002 IowaStateUniversity study estimated that production costs could increase by as much as $4.50 per hog in the first year following a ban on AGPs.

The negative effects on the U.S. livestock industry notwithstanding, federal lawmakers are expected to push hard for restrictions on agricultural antibiotics this year. Legislation sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), which would prohibit the use in livestock of “nontherapeutic” antibiotics for growth promotion, feed efficiency, weight gain, routine disease prevention or “other routine purposes,” may be added to the Animal Drug User Fee Act. It may get a boost from a report issued by the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which — despite evidence to the contrary — places the bulk of the blame for rising antimicrobial resistance on agricultural antibiotic use. (The commission was funded through a Pew Charitable Trust grant made to the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future, which sponsors “Meatless Mondays” and much more. The antimicrobial resistance report’s author, Ellen Silbergeld, is a professor of environmental health sciences at the BloombergSchool and has previously written critically about antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production.)

A 2006 report from the Institute of Food Technologists, however, said “eliminating antibiotic drugs from food-animal production may have little positive effect on resistant bacteria that threaten human health.” Other experts estimate that 96 percent of antibiotic resistance in humans is due to human uses of antibiotics. Some health experts have cited the escalating use of antibacterial soaps, detergents, lotions and other household items as contributing to antimicrobial resistance.

A review of scientific literature finds that antibiotic-resistant bacteria mostly have developed naturally, spontaneously through mutations or by acquiring resistant genes through exchanges with other bacteria.

Despite the uncertainty over the main causes for resistance, groups such as Keep Antibiotics Working, which includes the Humane Society of the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Food Animal Concerns Trust, among others, are attempting to rally public opinion against antibiotic uses in food-animal production. In a letter to the FDA Commissioner, KAW expressed concern “about the failure of the FDA to adequately respond to the crisis of antimicrobial resistance related to veterinary drug use in the United States.”

But strong controls on antibiotics used in food-animal production already exist. FDA must approve animal-health drugs before they can be used. The process includes ensuring that a drug is effective and safe for animals, harmless to the environment and safe for human consumption. FDA also sets withdrawal periods for animal-health products, and there are government surveillance programs, including the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, to track resistance trends.

The U.S. pork industry is doing its part, too. Through its Pork Quality Assurance Plus and Take Care: Use Antibiotics Responsibly programs, which were developed by the National Pork Board in conjunction with the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, the industry promotes the judicious and prudent use of antibiotics.

Of course, producers also employ other methods to help reduce antibiotic use, including facility maintenance and biosecurity protocols to prevent illiness.

Unfortunately, perception often is reality, and there’s growing opinion that animal agriculture is to blame for the rise in antibiotic resistance. Pork producers need to let their lawmakers and the public know that they follow industry guidelines on antibiotic use, that they work with their veterinarians to responsibly administer animal-health products, that antibiotics are only one part of a herd-health program, and that antibiotics help them produce safe, nutritious and abundant pork products for consumers worldwide.