GUEST COMMENTARY: Don't ban animal antibiotics, keep food safe

Wednesday, February 3, 2010 | 12:16 p.m. CST; updated 10:51 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A recent guest column, “Bill banning certain uses of antibiotics in animals is necessary,” Jan. 15, written by my colleague, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., was more than a little off base.

Contrary to her claim that antibiotics are overused in livestock production, I know that the hog, poultry and cattle farmers in my district, and around the country, use antibiotics responsibly and judiciously to keep their animals healthy, and healthy animals mean safe meat products. Farmers also use antibiotics only after their veterinarians run diagnostics to determine the presence of bugs that can cause diseases.

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Rep. Slaughter says her Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act would simply prohibit “nontherapeutic” uses of antibiotics. In fact, her bill would ban antibiotics used to prevent or control animal diseases.

Does anyone really believe it would be a good idea to stop veterinarians from administering drugs that would keep animals from getting sick or from giving them antibiotics once they do get sick to stop a disease from spreading? That would be like prohibiting doctors from giving children antibiotics to prevent them from getting the strep throat one of their classmates contracted. 

The American Veterinary Medical Association, a respected group of veterinarians and animal and public health professionals including many of Missouri’s roughly 325 food animal veterinarians, is opposed to this legislation because they clearly recognize that it will increase animal disease and death with no assurance of improvements to human health.

We know based on the experiences of pork producers in Denmark that if antibiotics used to prevent diseases are banned, there will be an increase in illnesses, and even deaths, in animals. With more illnesses, producers will need to use greater amounts of antibiotics to treat the resulting diseases.

Controls on animal antibiotics are already strong. In fact, they are tougher than the controls on human antibiotics. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires animal antibiotics manufacturers to show that their products will not harm human health or the environment, and a withdrawal period, time between an animal’s last dose and its slaughter, is required for every animal drug.

The appropriate use of antibiotics ensures that the cost of food for American consumers does not increase. Americans enjoy a safe, abundant, and cheap source of food through farmers’ efforts to keep livestock production free of disease.

According to a 2003 study by the American Agricultural Economics Association, an antibiotics ban similar to the one put in place in Denmark would cost more than $700 million over ten years for the U.S. pork industry alone.  There is no doubt that these costs will be passed on to consumers. 

More recently, a study(PDF) by Iowa State University shows that eliminating growth promotion and feed efficiency antibiotics would cost pork producers an additional $6 per head and would result in a roughly $1.1 billion loss to the industry over ten years.

As for the matter of antibiotics and trade, this issue has been used by some U.S. trading partners to restrict our exports. There’s no science behind their claims that animal antibiotics are causing problems because none exists. The United States has the safest food supply in the world thanks, in part, to the responsible and judicious use of antibiotics to keep animals healthy. It would be extremely unwise to restrict or eliminate their use because of some unfounded assertion that they are contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans.

One other point about antibiotic use in livestock production: Would consumers rather eat meat from animals that were kept healthy during their lifetime through responsible antibiotic use or from animals that were sick because they were denied preventive antibiotics? Consider, for example, another Iowa State University study(PDF) that found hogs that were sick during their lifetime had higher incidences of food-borne pathogens.

I do not know the number of livestock producers Rep. Slaughter represents in Buffalo or Rochester or Niagara Falls, New York. What I do know is that production agriculture is incredibly important to the economic well-being of my district. 

Losing the use of antibiotics to prevent and control diseases will jeopardize the animal health status of Missouri. The issue of antibiotic resistance in people is of great concern to me, but measures such as the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which purport to address the issue, are misguided at best and harmful to animal and public health at worst.

Blaine Luetkemeyer is the representative for Missouri's 9th Congressional District.

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Gregg Bush February 8, 2010 | 9:55 p.m.

Yet another reason to not vote for you.

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