GUEST COMMENTARY: Bill banning certain uses of antibiotics in animals is necessary

Friday, January 15, 2010 | 1:44 p.m. CST; updated 10:53 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I would like to respond to the January 7, 2010 letter titled, “No link between antibiotics used in livestock production, resistance in people.”

First and foremost, I would like to clear up a common misconception about my bill, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. The author states that “87 percent of animal antibiotics are used therapeutically to keep animals healthy by treating, preventing, and controlling disease.” But by definition, administering antibiotics to prevent disease in an animal that is not sick is not a therapeutic use of an antibiotic.  


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My bill will not ban the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals. It only prohibits the nontherapeutic use in livestock production of seven classes of antibiotics certified by the Food and Drug Administration as “highly” or “critically” important in human medicine.

Denmark, for example, has already banned the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock production, and in September of 2009, experts at the Danish Technical Institute wrote a letter to the speaker and me, detailing the positive results of the implementation of the policy. Findings include a significant reduction in antibiotics resistance among animal pathogens and a decrease in broiler (chicken) mortality after the ban of nontherapeutic antibiotic use was implemented. You can read a copy of the letter here.

Additionally, there is a solid link between the use of antibiotics in livestock production and the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria.  

On July 13, 2009, I held a hearing on PAMTA, and Margaret Mellon, the director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, stated, “The list of antibiotic resistant pathogens originating in animals is long."

As an example, in 2008, scientists were able to link livestock to a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

Opponents of my bill have falsely argued that we can address the issue of antibiotic resistance if we decrease the overuse of antibiotics in humans, but a recent National Academy of Sciences report states that “a decrease in antimicrobial use in human medicine alone will have little effect on the current situation. Substantial efforts must be made to decrease inappropriate overuse in animals and agriculture as well.”

I would also like to point out that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production is not just a public health issue — it is a trade issue. Growing concerns about antimicrobial resistance have caused some U.S. trading partners and competitors, including the European Union, New Zealand and South Korea, to implement restrictions and prohibitions on the use of certain antibiotics for subtherapeutic or nontherapeutic purposes in animal production. Under World Trade Organization rules, trading partners who implement this ban will have the right to refuse imports that do not meet this standard.

Just last week, Russia announced it was going to widen its ban on United States pork imports, due in part to a dispute over standards for antibiotic residue.

Opponents of this legislation often cite increased costs to farmers if a ban on the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics is implemented. Although a recent report from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service supports the idea that a reduction in antibiotic use could be achieved without major costs to producers, I would ask those farmers: Have they considered the cost to American agriculture if countries continue to decide that the risk of antibiotics in livestock production is too high to import meat from the United States?

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) is the chairwoman of the House Committee on Rules.

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Dave Warner January 18, 2010 | 12:05 p.m.

Rep. Slaughter's bill would ban antibiotics used to prevent animals from getting sick and to control the spread of diseases after an animal gets sick. That's a recipe for disaster. It would mean more sick animals and more animal deaths. Would consumers really want to eat meat from animals that were sick during their lifetimes rather than ones kept healthy through the responsible and judicious use of FDA-approved antibiotics?

As for that letter from Denmark: The Danish government played fast and loose with its own data to "prove" that its animal antibiotics ban worked. It didn't; it did result in more piglet deaths, higher pork production costs and an increase in the use of antibiotics for treating diseases. And those antibiotics -- not the ones used to prevent and control diseases -- are the ones more likely to be used in human medicine. Most importantly, Denmark's ban has had no positive effect on human health.

Utterances by the Union of Concern Scientists hardly provide a "solid link" between antibiotic use in livestock production and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In fact, links between antibiotics used in livestock production and antibiotic-resistance in people are unproved, and the federal National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring Program has not shown patterns that would be expected if resistant bacteria were routinely being transferred from animals to humans.

And while there indeed have been studies showing that livestock -- like many wild animals and about 30 percent of people -- carry methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), livestock farmers have no greater incidence of MRSA infections than the general population. In fact, the overwhelming majority of MRSA infections occur in hospitals and other health care facilities.

The issue of trade and antibiotic use is a concern. But U.S. livestock producers use antibiotics approved by FDA, and U.S. meat exports meet antibiotic "maximum residue limits" set by a U.N. food-safety body. Countries that have raised concerns about antibiotics in U.S. meat exports have done so without a scientific basis as a way to restrict those exports.

U.S. livestock farmers use antibiotics responsibly and judiciously to keep their animals healthy, which means safe meat products. Banning animal antibiotics will jeopardize that, lead to more animal health problems, raise production costs and consumer prices and do little or nothing to improve human health.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 18, 2010 | 3:43 p.m.

She is from NY what does she know about agriculture? Why on Earth would we want to do anything Denmark or the EU has done when it comes to Ag.

Academy of Sciences report states that “a decrease in antimicrobial use in human medicine alone will have little effect on the current situation. Substantial efforts must be made to decrease inappropriate overuse in animals and agriculture as well

So let me get this straight we are in more danger from eating animals that have been treated with antibiotics than we are from using them ourselves? Where did these people get their science degrees from? That makes no sense at all.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield January 18, 2010 | 4:22 p.m.

Never been to upstate NY, have you, Allan?

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 18, 2010 | 6:51 p.m.

Oh I know NY has a lot of agriculture but she has been raised in a Suburb of NY and mostly represents Urban areas.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote January 18, 2010 | 10:49 p.m.

@Mr. Warner,

The following study found a statistically significant difference in the infection rate of pig farmers with S. aureus versus non farm controls:
Clonal Comparison of Staphylococcus aureus Isolates from Healthy Pig Farmers, Human Controls, and Pigs
Laurence Armand-Lefevre,* Raymond Ruimy,* and Antoine Andremont*

The study found that farmers were at a significantly greater risk for colonization by resistant commensal bacteria, including fecal enterobacteria and enterococci, nongroupable throat streptococci, and nasal Staphylococcus aureus. The rate of nasal S. aureus colonization was also significantly higher in farmers, in whom it reached 44.6%, compared to 24.1% in controls. The study also found that, with respect to the S.aureus isolated from farmers, 55% contain the same genetic markers as drug resistant S. aureus isolated from swine. This is in contrast to the control group. None of the S. aureus found in this group had the same genetic markers as the drug resistant S. aureus isolated from swine.
I realize this is only one study, however, the science is fairly sound. Thus I don't think it is correct to say:"livestock farmers have no greater incidence of MRSA infections than the general population".

(Report Comment)
Dave Warner January 19, 2010 | 10:21 a.m.

@Christopher Foote
The study you included in your last post does NOT show more MRSA infections among pig farmers; it inconclusively shows more "colonization."
Pigs -- like dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, turtles and marine mammals -- carry MRSA. Pig farmers, therefore, could be expected to have more MRSA colonization (44.6%) than the general public (30%).
There are at least three general categories of MRSA:
1) Virulent forms of MRSA are a serious human health problem. The virulent forms are most commonly found in health-care settings such as hospitals, dialysis centers and long-term care facilities.
2) Less invasive forms of MRSA commonly are found throughout the general population.
3) A third form that is less invasive than the health-care associated form recently has been discovered in Dutch, Canadian and American swine farms. This form has been found in some people who have close contact with livestock (pigs, calves and poultry), but there is no data to indicate that producers have a higher than normal infection rate.
The bottom line is if we want to make significant progress on reducing the increase in antibiotic-resistant illnesses in humans, overuse of antibiotics in HUMAN medicine must be addressed. Of course, taking that path would be very hard -- something most lawmakers in Washington are reluctant to do.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote January 19, 2010 | 12:10 p.m.

@Mr. Warner,
Yes you are correct, the study showed colonization and not infection (I erred in using those terms interchangeably). However, the risk of infection increases dramatically for patients that are colonized with MRSA ( Thus workers that have an increased risk of colonization also have an increased risk of infection. An ST398 S. aureus variant that infects swine has also been found in infected humans, as has the ST22, and ST8 variants.
Thus the swine variant(s) are pathogenic to humans. I understand that as the Director of Communications for the Pork Producers it is your job to argue that there is not a link. However, the available data suggests that there is inter-species transfer of MRSA from livestock to humans, and that the transferred MRSA is pathogenic to humans.

(Report Comment)
ena valikov January 19, 2010 | 10:30 p.m.

Just a short list of studies showing antibiotic resistance.

(free full text available on link on many of these)

I could go on significantly.

There are a small number of studies to the contrary, but rather concerningly, almost all of these are not neutrally funded. One study from a private research firm funded by Alpharma:

Another study form the same firm funded by Phibro Animal Health, a manufacturer of virginiamycin.

Another study from the same firm funded by Philip Morris International

So...antibiotis used for growth promotion in ratio of 70% livestock to 30% human, is indeed resulting in the antibiotics becoming obsolete, and there are few replacements in the pipeline. It is beyond irresponsible for the agriculture segment to profit at the expense of public health. It is estimated that abuse of antibiotics results in more human deaths than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined!

(Report Comment)
Ranch Wilder January 20, 2010 | 8:24 p.m.

I’ll opine on Ena Valikov's short list of PubMed links: none show any conclusive evidence:

-quinolone, not used in feeds
-speculation on veterinary antibiotics
-drugs never used in the US (avoparcin)
-hypothesis, circumstantial line of argument
-“may be transmitted”, speculative
-resistance rates are different for different Salmonella- no proof of any connection to animal drugs
-E. coli strain comparisons, no link to human disease or agriculture shown
-Campylobacter resistance, descriptive, speculative on policy
-descriptive of multi-resistant Salmonella, quinolone resistance no connection to feed medications
-describes pathogen loads in Danish broilers, other studies show opposite effects, written by advocate of EU ban policy.
- E. coli description, nonharmful strains, possible occupational links for swine farmers
-avoparcin, drug never used in the US
-E. faecium “probably from animal husbandry”, speculative
-glycopeptide/vancomycin resistance, never used in the US
-quinolone resistant Salmonella

The other antibiotic risk assessment papers mentioned directly address virginiamycin and penicillin resistance that could possibly be due to feed medication uses and transfer to people. Likelihood of reduced antibiotic effectiveness in people is extremely low.

(Report Comment)
Ranch Wilder January 23, 2010 | 9:58 p.m.

The bill is mis-named (so-called preservation of antibiotics for medical treatment act, pamta). There are no studies showing that pulling approvals for the medicated feeds will in any way 'preserve' the drugs. Europe has seen NO improvement in human resistance following their ill-advised bans. This atrocious bill deserves the same fate as Obamacare and Cap n Tax. Feel-good legislation that will accomplish little and economically hurt hard working US farmers and ranchers.

(Report Comment)
Halli Slotnick February 9, 2010 | 3:23 p.m.

One, I strongly feel that in all actions, we should abide by the "precautionary principle," avoiding possibly harmful actions and practices until they are proven safe, rather than allowing them until proven harmful.

Two, Concentrated Animal Feedlot Organizations (CAFOs) are only possible with “preventative” antibiotic use, as this is used to “make up” for unsanitary conditions.

Three, "preventative" antibiotic use is also necessary for the unnatural corn-based diets fed to cattle in CAFOs, which both (a) wreak havoc on the pH of the rumen (more on that in a minute) and (b) make the meat less healthy than grass-fed beef, changing the consistency of the fatty acid chains from Omega-3 to Omega-6. Our need for a new Farm Bill is in large part to blame for the overabundance of industrial-grade corn in the market, which leads to it being a cheap source of food for CAFOs. However, cattle are not designed to eat corn, and require antibiotics to keep this unnatural diet from making them sick. An interesting point is that if "preventative" antibiotic use is stopped, unnatural corn-based diets will have to be stopped as well, which will make red meat healthier when the cattle is grass-fed, consisting of far more Omega-3 fatty acids.

Four, E.coli, for example, spreading to fields of spinach and leafy greens is a direct cause of the factory farm meat industry and the use of preventative antibiotics. In a quick summary, (1) a corn diet, unnatural to cows, lowers the natural acidity of the cow’s stomach, enabling dangerous types of E.coli to thrive; (2) these deadly strains are then present in the cows’ feces to a far higher degree than in that of grass-fed cows; (3) the CAFOs do not process the antibiotic-tainted feces appropriately, but pump it into unprotected lagoons; (4) a rainstorm is all that’s needed to overflow the lagoons and spread the festering feces into nearby fields, including those growing spinach and leafy greens.

In sum, while outlawing "preventative" antibiotic use could (hopefully) be "disastrous" for CAFOs, it would help solve several serious health problems - not only the risk of antibiotic resistance, but also the unhealthy composition of meat from corn-fed cattle, and serious health concerns with the unsanitary conditions in CAFOs as well as the lagoons of toxic feces they produce. Sure, meat would end up being more expensive, but for safer food and a healthier public, in my opinion, it's far worth it.

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