A New York congresswoman is trying to rally support for a federal bill that would restrict antibiotic use in food animals just months after a similar measure tanked in California.
Despite being voted down in Sacramento, a proposal that bans feeding antibiotics to cattle, hogs and poultry to increase their growth seems to be gaining momentum in the nation's capital, where the Obama administration has condemned the practice.
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that as much as 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy animals. Conventional farmers and ranchers routinely feed antibiotics to their herd to help the animals use their food more efficiently and bulk up faster. They say the medication also helps ward off pathogens that could sicken or kill their livestock.
But scientists and doctors fear that the overuse of these drugs makes them less effective in fighting bacteria in humans and animals. Microbes that develop immunity to the drugs will multiply and flourish.
"We're looking at ways to phase out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and food efficiency in livestock," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who is concerned that giving anti-microbials to animals when they are not sick is inappropriate - and even worse, contributes to more drug-resistant infections in people.
Sharfstein is also pushing for veterinarians to oversee antibiotic use on animals. Currently, livestock feeds mixed with antibiotics such as Tylosin, a macrolide; and Chlortetracycline are sold over the counter.
The deputy commissioner recently submitted his written position to the House Rules Committee on the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, the bill proposed by the committee's chairwoman, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-NY.
"We've taken one of the greatest scientific discoveries and are destroying its effectiveness," said Slaughter, a microbiologist.
"One of the reasons meat and poultry producers use them is because they house their animals in filthy conditions," she continued. "They're stuffed in there like sardines."
If passed, the legislation could drastically change farm practices in this country. Many consumers already have turned to antibiotic-free meat and poultry because they want products that have been raised naturally and out of an industrial farm setting.
"The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health, damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food," Bob Martin of the Pew Environment Group, a division of the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts, told the House Rules Committee.
Consequences of ban
But some ranchers and farmers argue that the measure would probably endanger livestock, flood the market with imported meat and raise the cost of producing food.
"I worry about unintended consequences of such legislation, such as increased need for therapeutic drug use in livestock, which has been seen in Europe," said veterinarian Michael Payne, a researcher and education coordinator from UC Davis' Western Institute of Food Safety & Security. "Also, removing tools that allow us to more efficiently produce food may ultimately jeopardize our ability to feed ourselves."
Michael Apley, a clinical pharmacologist, veterinarian and professor at Kansas State University, said there is no doubt that keeping animals in close quarters "can allow some diseases to spread more rapidly."
"But we couldn't produce half of what we produce if we let them graze on pasture."
Apley agrees that bacteria resistance needs to be addressed, but he believes the bill may be too draconian, especially when it comes to using antibiotics as a preventative measure against deadly bacteria.
The legislation proposes that "in the absence of any clinical sign of disease" farmers be forbidden from using any of seven classes of antibiotics, including penicillin, tetracycline and macrolide for routine infection prevention.
Prevention vs. treatment
"From a biological standpoint that doesn't make sense," said John Maas, a professor at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and a cattle expert. "Instead of using small doses to prevent illness, you're going to have to increase the dose 100 fold when the animal gets sick."
Typically using antibiotics to control disease can cut potential illness by 25 to 50 percent, Apley said.
More sickness and deaths in the herd, added to the fact that ranchers will have to use more feed and their cattle still won't grow as large, will raise production costs, said John Lawrence, a livestock economist at Iowa State University. He estimates that if the bill is approved ranchers will have to spend $20 more per head to raise a steer from the time it is weaned until slaughter.
Despite the higher production costs, Lawrence said, prices won't climb much at the grocery store. He said meat from countries such as Argentina and Mexico would probably be imported to meet demand.
For pork, production costs would increase by $6 per pig, said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. "And that's at a time when producers are losing $20 a head," he said.
Although the measure has support from the FDA and the American Medical Association, it faces tough opposition from the agriculture industry, a powerful lobby that helped defeat the bill in California, proposed by state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter (Kern County). SB416 also called for banning the use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic reasons and was voted down, 20-15, in June.