Feb. 15, 2007 – Pressure from critics who fear that disease-causing bacteria are becoming more resistant to drugs has prompted federal lawmakers to introduce a bill that would curb the practice of routinely dosing livestock with antibiotics to promote their growth.
Scientists are warning of a "post-antibiotic era," in which antibiotics are no longer able to fight disease. Experts say the potency of some antibiotics has already begun to wane.
Antibiotic over-use in humans is considered the most significant contributor to resistance. But a growing list of scientific organizations â€“ including the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization â€“ says the agriculture industry should limit the use of antibiotics in animal feed to help stave off the public-health threat.
The European Union has already banned the use of antibiotics to promote livestock growth.
"There are not too many new antibiotics being developed, and the drugs we do have are not working anymore," said Jenn Palembas, of the Union for Concerned Scientistâ€™s Food and Environment program. "Thereâ€™s an arms race between the drugs and the bugs, with the drugs trying to keep up. We try to go to stronger antibiotics, but then bacteria develop a resistance to those. A lot of doctors are worried that someday weâ€™ll get to a point when the drugs canâ€™t keep up."
The federal legislation introduced by Senators Edward Kennedy (Dâ€“Massachusetts) and Olympia Snowe (Râ€“Maine) and Representative Louise Slaughter (Dâ€“New York) would "phase out" over two years the use of some medically important antibiotics that are also used for "nontherapeutic" purposes in animals â€“ drugs used for growth promotion and disease prevention in the absence of any actual disease.
Scientists are warning of a â€œpost-antibiotic era,â€ in which antibiotics are no longer able to fight disease.
Drug manufacturers, however, could seek an exemption from the phase-out if they could prove that "there is a reasonable certainty of no harm to human health."
The bill would also force drug companies to report the amount of antibiotics sold each year for animal food. Currently, the government does not collect data on antibiotic use in animals, and prescriptions are generally not needed for nontherapeutic antibiotics for animals.
"Because use drives resistance, having good data on how much drugs are actually used by livestock producers [will allow us to] see where problems are arising," said Steve Roach, the food safety program manager for the Food Animal Concerns Trust, a member of the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition.
Over 350 organizations, from the American Medical Association to the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, support legislation to phase out antibiotic use in farm animals.
But the bill is being met with industry resistance. The Coalition for Animal Health, an industry group that defends factory-farming practices, released a statement on Monday opposing the bill.
â€œThereâ€™s an arms race between the drugs and the bugs, with the drugs trying to keep up."
Ron Phillips, of the industry-funded Animal Health Institute, told The NewStandard that "antibiotics are used by food producers to keep animals healthy, and healthy animals are necessary for producing a safe and healthful food supply."
Phillips pointed to a report by the Institute of Food Technologists, a nonprofit that supports research for the food industry, which reported that a ban on antibiotics for animal growth in Denmark had created an increase in intestinal disease in animals and resulted in increased antibiotic resistance due to need for treatment.
But animal-rights groups like Farm Sanctuary and the environmentalist Sierra Club say the use of antibiotics in animals to prevent diseases is only necessary because animals are kept in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions on todayâ€™s factory farms.
Lisa Kline, who co-runs a small Minnesota farm called Hidden Stream, said simple animal husbandry practices allow her to raise animals without using antibiotics. Hidden Streamâ€™s animals are not confined to small spaces and are allowed outside. "It's part of our philosophy not to be giving our animals drugs all the time," Kline told TNS.
Harold Brown, outreach coordinator for Farm Sanctuary, said that without antibiotics, large farms would have to change their animalsâ€™ living conditions, "It would mean a complete deconstruction of the way the [industrial agriculture] system exists now," he said.