Saturday, January 2, 2010

Antibiotic use in feed animals

With New Year’s looming, it is a time when we all assess the past year and set up some anticipated changes for the next annum.  Some will join a gym in an attempt to take off holiday pounds or improve their cardio-vascular health.  Some hope to give up smoking or drinking, or make other life style changes in an attempt to improve their lives.  If improved health is your goal, you might want to reassess your eating habits and sources of your food.

An issue that has been debated for over a decade now if the continued use of antibiotics in the raising of the food livestock in factory farms, from whence meat sold in most supermarkets emanates.  Swine, poultry, beef and veal are routinely fed antibiotics in their feed, even when they are not sick.  Producers have discovered that including small amounts of antibiotics in animal feed decreases the bacteria in the animals’ gut, thus increasing the animals’ ability to gain weight faster.  Faster weight gain reduces the ultimate amount of food fed, thus increasing producers’ profits, and profit is the name of the game in agribusiness.  The presence of antibiotic residues in American meat is not a problem, as the USDA requires a withdrawal period before slaughter.

What’s wrong with feeding sub-therapeutic amounts of antibiotics to healthy animals?  Advocates assert that it keeps the herd, which is confined to a non-pasture feed lot, healthy and prevents the spread of disease, while promoting growth and limiting the amount of grain necessary to achieve market weight.  Concerned scientists, on the other hand, are troubled by the rise of bacteria that mutate to become antibiotic-resistant, and whether this poses a risk to humans.  It has been documented that antibiotic-resistant campylobacter and salmonella bacteria have caused illness in US consumers.  In Europe and Japan, the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics is not allowed in livestock production.

Of all the antibiotics produced in this country, it is estimated that as much as 50% or more is used in livestock production, either as a therapeutic treatment when an animal is sick, or as a sub-therapeutic prophylactic to increase immunity and promote growth.  The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 76 million Americans become ill each year from food borne bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and metals, and 5,000 of these illnesses result in death.  However, it is not clear how many of these illnesses and deaths are directly related to antibiotic resistance.

There is evidence, however, that antibiotics used to treat human illnesses, like penicillin, tetracycline and erythromycin, are being impacted by the overuse of antibiotics in animals.  While antibiotics are probably over-prescribed for human illnesses (i.e. 40% of children with a cold are prescribed an antibiotic), and this will eventually lead to more resistance amongst bacteria populations, there is an established connection between the use of certain antibiotics in animal production and increased antibiotic resistant disease bacteria in human illnesses.  Scientists want the
FDA to ban the use in feed animals of antibiotics used by humans in an attempt to slow down the development of bacterial resistance in those drugs.  The industry, including producers, pharmaceutical companies and large agribusiness companies like Monsanto and Cargill are lobbying Congress to prevent this from happening.

Changes to our agricultural system will take time, so consumers who want to support a non-agribusiness form of food production have it within their power to promote the status quo, or not, with their food dollars.   Consumers are the ultimate arbitrator in this issue.  If you don’t buy their products, businesses will change to products you will support.  Local farmers offer a product that does not rely on drugs to fatten their herds.  They use grass and responsible animal husbandry techniques. 

You decide. 

Happy New Year!

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