Minimize Antibiotics

Posted Sept. 27, 2009, at 6:23 p.m.

Although major food buyers, including national chain restaurants, have stopped buying meat from farms where antibiotics are routinely used or asked such farms to reduce their use, the routine administration of these drugs remains too widespread. Rather than leaving it up to individual companies, Congress should adopt a national policy to limit antibiotic use.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that as much as 70 percent of antibiotics used annually on livestock is not for medical treatment. Instead, the drugs are used to promote growth and to combat the effects of cramped, dirty conditions at some farms.

The problem is that such routine use of antibiotics in animals can lead to the natural development and spread of drug-resistant bacteria, which can harm humans and animals.

Last year, a new strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, also known as flesh-eating bacteria, was discovered in the United States. A University of Iowa researcher studied two large hog farms in that state and found the bacteria in nearly half the pigs and 45 percent of the farmers there. This showed a close link between animal and human health.

Others studies in the U.S. and other countries found MRSA in pork and beef headed for consumers.

Denmark is one of the countries that has banned the use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick. This has reduced antibiotic resistance in pigs and chickens by more than 90 percent, according to a report by the World Health Organization.

This summer, for the first time, the Food and Drug Administration said it would move to ban the use of antibiotics in farm animals.

A way to do this already is before Congress. For years, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act has languished. The bill, co-sponsored by Olympia Snowe in the Senate, would require the FDA to withdraw the approval of nontherapeutic use of seven classes of antibiotics within two years. It would also require the manufacturers of animal drugs and medicated feed to make their records available to the CDC so it will be better able to track use and resistance trends. The bill also authorizes the secretary of agriculture to make payments to defray the costs of farms transitioning away from the medicines with a priority given to small and family farms.

The House, this summer, held a hearing on the bill. The use of antibiotics for “purposes other than for the advancement of animal or human health” is not “judicious,” Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner for food and drugs at the FDA, said in written testimony. “Eliminating these uses will not compromise the safety of food,” he added.

The routine use of antibiotics in livestock is unnecessary and potentially harmful to the animals and the humans who work with and eat them. The practice is slowly being phased out by market demand and government action. Federal legislation would accomplish this even more quickly.

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