The following is excerpted form a series of Associated Press articles focusing on antibiotic use in food animals.
(AP) The pressure against the use of antibiotics in agriculture is rising. The World Health Organization concluded this year that surging antibiotic resistance is one of the leading threats to human health, and the White House last month said the problem is "urgent."
"If we're not careful with antibiotics and the programs to administer them, we're going to be in a post antibiotic era," said Thomas Frieden, who was tapped to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this year.
Also this year, the three federal agencies charged with protecting public health — the Food and Drug Administration, CDC and USDA — declared drug-resistant diseases stemming from antibiotic use in animals a "serious emerging concern." FDA deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein told Congress this summer that farmers need to stop feeding antibiotics to healthy farm animals.
Farm groups and some drug companies argue that antibiotics keep animals healthy and meat costs low, and have defeated a series of proposed limits on their use. According to a new USDA study, antibiotics also save as much as 30 percent in feed costs among young swine, although the savings decline as pigs get older.
However, some U.S. lawmakers such as Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-N.Y), are fighting for a new law that would ban farmers from feeding antibiotics to their animals unless they are sick.
Renewed pressure is on Capitol Hill from Slaughter's bill as well as new rules discussed in regulatory agencies. There is also pressure from trade issues: The European Union and other developed countries have adopted strong limits against antibiotics. Russia recently banned pork imports from two U.S. plants after detecting levels of tetracycline that the USDA said met American standards.
Johns Hopkins University health sciences professor Ellen Silbergeld, who has reviewed every major study on this issue, said there's no doubt drug use in farm animals is a "major driver of antimicrobial resistance worldwide."
Farmers and drugmakers are battling back. Pharmaceutical companies have spent $135 million lobbying so far this year, and agribusiness companies another $70 million, on a handful of issues including fighting the proposed new limits. Opponents, many from farm states, say Slaughter's law is misguided.
Pork producer and veterinarian Craig Rowles remains unconvinced of the danger in antibiotic use. "If there was some sort of crossover between the use of the antibiotics in animals and the antibiotics in humans, if there was in fact a real issue there, wouldn't you think we would have seen it?" said Rowles, who sells 150,000 hogs a year. "That's what the science says to me."
The modular modern barn, home to 1,000 pigs, is a hygienic place. Rowles dons a sanitary white paper jumpsuit and slips plastic booties over his shoes; he's anxious that his 100-pound pigs aren't exposed to outside germs. A few sick animals are isolated, corralled in a pen near the entrance.
Antibiotics are a crucial part of Rowles' business, speeding growth and warding off disease. "Now the public doesn't see that," he said. "They're only concerned about resistance, and they don't care about economics because, 'As long as I can buy a pork chop for a buck 69 a pound, I really don't care.' But we live in a world where you have to consider economics in the decision-making process of what we do."
Rowles gives his pigs virginiamycin, which has been used in livestock for decades and is not absorbed by the gut. He withdraws the drug three weeks before his hogs are sent for slaughter. He also monitors his herd for signs of drug resistance to ensure they are getting the most effective doses.
"The one thing that the American public wants to know is: Is the product that I'm getting safe to eat?" said Rowles, whose home freezer is full of his pork. "I'm telling you that the product that we produce today is the safest, most wholesome product that you could possibly get."
Source: Associated Press