U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine will join Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, in introducing a bill to ban the use of eight antibiotics commonly used in agriculture to promote the growth of poultry and livestock. Snowe is the first Republican to endorse the measure, which is a revised version of a bill that failed last year.

There is growing concern among scientists, physicians and public health officials that the widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture is contributing to the development of "super bugs" that are resistant to any kind of treatment. Supporters of that theory say they want to prevent a medical backslide to the days when common infections were frightening and life-threatening.

The American Medical Association has come out in support of use restrictions. A study released in March by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine called for an end to nontherapeutic use of the drugs, as did a 2002 study in the medical journal "Clinical Infectious Diseases."

Some businesses, including some poultry producers, have voluntarily taken steps to reduce their antibiotic use. Last month, McDonald's announced that it has asked its meat suppliers to phase out the use of growth-promoting antibiotics by the end of 2004. It is the first fast-food chain to do so, but it probably won't be the last.

Snowe did not support Kennedy's antibiotics bill last year because it would have banned the therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock as well as their use as growth promoters. Negotiations have been going on since October to develop an acceptable version, said Elizabeth Wenk, Snowe's spokeswoman.

"We want to ensure that it's based on sound science," Wenk said.

Kennedy's and Snowe's bill would phase out the routine, nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture over two years.

Producers think the bill is "a bad idea," said Barbara Determan, a pork producer in Iowa who has been active in the antibiotics debate.

"It would be a financial hardship because many of the operations have situations where putting in low-level antibiotics keeps the animals healthy and they gain faster," she said. "That's important to us, of course, but more importantly we want to make sure we have a safe product. If an animal becomes sick, then you have to treat it and sometimes end up using more antibiotic."

Determan said pork producers have been searching for about four years for alternatives to reduce the use of growth-promoting drugs.

Portland Press Herald