Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Louise Slaughter introduced legislation on March 17 that would outlaw administering antibiotics to healthy livestock raised for food—including cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry. The ban, similar to a European law, would permit drug manufacturers to sell antibiotics intended for nonhuman use only if the drugs can be proven to present no risk to public health.
While it is widely acknowledged that overuse of antibiotics in humans results in superbugs—resistant strains of disease that require the use of increasingly powerful drugs to treat infections—the effects of giving antibiotics to animals raised for food is still being debated by some.
Bob Stallman, president of the 6 million-member American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement, “Farmers and ranchers and the veterinarians they work with use antibiotics carefully, judiciously and according to label instructions, primarily to treat, prevent and control disease in our flocks and herds. Antibiotics are critically important to the health and welfare of the animals and to the safety of the food produced.”
However, the exact quantities of antibiotics being given to livestock are difficult to verify, said Margaret Mellon, senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We don’t have the government-backed data on this, because the producer community resists us getting that data at every turn,” Mellon said. “Our data show that the use is not judicious. It’s massive. About 24 million pounds used for non-therapeutic purposes.”
Kelli Ludlum, who handles livestock issues on the AFBF’s public policy team, did not offer specific numbers when asked about amounts, but referred NFM to the Animal Health Institute, which publishes an annual survey of its members, approximately 15 drug manufacturers including Dow AgroSciences and the Monsanto Company.
The report does not cite quantities, but does state that total sales for antibiotic use in animals rose 5 percent in 2007 over the previous year, an increase attributed partly to “an increase in U.S. meat production of more than 2 billion pounds.”
Dr. Robert Livingston, AHI’s director of International Affairs and Regulatory Policy, said while AHI’s report is an accurate estimate of its members’ output, it does not take into account generic drug makers, and includes ionophores, which he said are not suspected of contributing to resistant strains. “I don’t think there is really a good handle on [the numbers],” Livingston said.
AFBF said the proposed ban would jeopardize animal health and lead to potential food safety problems. Mellon, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said proponents of antibiotic use in livestock are “isolated in their scientific position,” adding that “an all-star roster” of mainstream medical groups, including the American Medical Association, support the legislation.
“I have a lot of respect for the producers. They’re smart people,” Mellon said. “They would look so good if they said, ‘We’re going to minimize use of antibiotics; we’re going to advocate for government regulation and documentation, and we’re going to be transparent about it.’ ”