Antibiotics on the Farm

This feature has been updated and now consists of a collection of articles on the subject of Antibiotics on the Farm. This has been an ongoing debate for a number of years, and was recently highlighted again by the attached report on agricultural antibiotics by the US non-profit organisation Union of Concerned Scientists.
calendar icon 26 January 2001
clock icon 7 minute read
The main thrust of the debate revolves around human health issues and the development of superbugs. However, antibiotics (and the use of hormones) in animal feed causes other problems, notably with trade, which can be seen in various news articles on this site.

In November 2000 there was an article discussing a report from the EU about residues in Canadian meat and in January this year Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau was urging U.S. trade officials to work to abolish export subsidies, slash tariffs and remove what he said were the "bogus health and food safety claims" against biotechnology that protect markets, not consumers. A direct reference to the EU's restrictions on the imports of some US meat.

This all arises because the general use of most antibiotics and all hormones as growth promoters in feed are banned in the EU due mainly to the concerns raised in these articles. This results in the trade restrictions imposed on certain meat imports to the EU.

This story has a long way to run as the new animal protein feed restrictions start to be rigorously applied in the EU as a result of BSE. Blood plasma, which is used outside the EU in Medicated Early Weaning regimes, is one of the banned feed products, so opens up another potential for trade restrictions between the EU and its "non-conforming" trading partners. This could have serious implications for farms using feed containing plasma proteins and blood products.

To read more about the issues revolving around antibiotics, follow the links below. To read about possible alternatives to antibiotic growth promoters click here:

Drug-Resistant Bugs Spawn Greater Concerns
National Hog Farmer, Jan 2001: If it weren't so true, antibiotic resistance in livestock would be a great plot for Steven Spielberg's next science fiction thriller. A heroic team of veterinarians and physicians takes on an epidemic of untreatable infections caused by Superbug. Meanwhile, lawyers representing consumer activists, pharmaceutical companies, food suppliers and livestock producers battle it out in court.

FDA Says Farm Antibiotics Must Be Reined in
Progressive Farmer Jan 2001: Escalating rates of antibiotic-resistant human diseases demand a sweeping re-examination of the ways that such drugs are now used on the nation's farms, the Food and Drug Administration warned Monday 22nd Jan 2001.

Farmers warned of antibiotic threat
BBC News, August 1999 The use of antibiotics in British farming could present "a real threat" to human health, according to the first expert report in 30 years. It says that "shows conclusively that antibiotics given to animals result in the emergence of some resistant bacteria which can infect humans".

EU Moves Toward a Total Ban Of Antibiotics in Animal Feed
Wall Street Journal, July 1999 The European Union is moving toward a total ban on the use of antibiotics in animal feed, despite concerns that such a move could make European meat more expensive.

EU Bans US Beef Over Fears Of Hormone-Fed Cattle
BBC News , April 1999 The United States and the European Union are heading for another trade row, this time over beef. The European Union has announced it will be ban all beef imports from the United States.

Global Animal Health Industry condemns EU antibiotic ban
COMISA , December 1998 This week’s decision by EU Agriculture Ministers to ban four antibiotics used widely in livestock production for growth promotion has been strongly condemned by the global animal health industry association, Comisa.

Europe to ban antibiotics in feed
Bloomberg News, October 1998 The European Commission plans to prohibit the use of certain antibiotics as additives in animal feed, saying the practice could damage human health.

Report from the Union of Concerned Scientists on Agricultural Antibiotics

70 Percent of All Antibiotics Given to Healthy Livestock

Excessive use of antibiotics by meat producers, 8 times more than in human medicine, contributes to alarming increase in antibiotic resistance

Every year in the United States 25 million pounds of valuable antibiotics -- roughly 70 percent of total US antibiotic production -- are fed to chickens, pigs, and cows for nontherapeutic purposes like growth promotion, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. This finding -- 40 percent greater than the estimate of the livestock industry for all animal uses -- is the first transparent estimate of the quantities of antibiotics used in meat production.

The report is also the first to show that the quantities of antibiotics used in animal agriculture dwarf those used in human medicine. Nontherapeutic livestock use in chickens, pigs, and cows accounts for 8 times more antibiotics than human medicine, which is using only 3 million pounds per year.

"The meat industry's share of the antibiotic-resistance problem has been ignored for too long," said Dr. Margaret Mellon, Director of the Food and Environment Program at UCS and co-author of the new report. "Antibiotics are a precious resource and should be used in animals only when necessary."

Until now, health officials and citizens had to rely on incomplete industry estimates to design effective responses to the antibiotic-resistance problem. According to the new UCS report, "Hogging It: Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock," the total use of antibiotics in healthy livestock has climbed from 16 million pounds in the mid-1980s to 25 million pounds today. Of that, approximately 10 million pounds are used in hogs, 11 million pounds in poultry, and 4 million pounds in cattle.

"The excessive use of antibiotics by the livestock industry is sobering," said Dr. Charles Benbrook, an independent economist and co-author of the report. "Feeding antibiotics to animals from birth to slaughter may modestly improve meat industry profits, but it puts everyone's health at risk. It is time to rethink how pigs, cattle and poultry are raised in the United States." Available industry data appear to underestimate the usage of antibiotics and are far too general to help scientists explore the linkages between drug use in livestock and the spread of resistance. With no government-backed data available, the authors of the report devised a methodology for calculating antibiotic use in livestock operations from publicly available information, including herd size, approved drug lists, and dosages. The researchers acknowledge the need for more complete, up-to-date data on livestock antibiotic use. They invite the pharmaceutical industry, which holds the production data, and the animal livestock industry, which could compile usage information, to bring better data to the public arena. But new data must be transparent and verifiable.

"The public has been flying blind," said Mellon. "The government should act now to collect the needed data. The price of complacency could set us back to an era where untreatable infectious diseases are regrettably commonplace."

UCS recommends that the Food and Drug Administration establish a system to compel companies that sell antibiotics for livestock use to provide annual reports on the quantity of these drugs sold. The US Department of Agriculture should improve the completeness and accuracy of its periodic surveys of antibiotic use in livestock. The FDA, USDA, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should speed up implementation of its government-wide action plan, which calls for the establishment of monitoring systems and the assessment of ways to collect and protect the confidentiality of usage data.

The FDA, which oversees the approval and cancellation of veterinary drugs, will discuss the use of antimicrobial drugs in food animals at a public meeting, January 22-24.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit alliance of thousands of committed citizens and leading scientists working to preserve our health, protect our safety and enhance our quality of life. UCS has used rigorous scientific analysis, innovative policy development, and effective citizen advocacy to achieve practical environmental solutions.
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