Antibiotics in Food Now Major Health Threat

Antibiotics in Food Now
Major Health Threat

Antibiotics and the Food System (
Posted: 04/04/2002


Beacon Journal 04-01-2002
Posted on Mon, Apr. 01, 2002

Scientists deplore drugs in livestock
People's health affected as germs grow resistant to antibiotics, they say
By Thrity Umrigar
Beacon Journal staff writer
After years of warnings about doctors' overprescribing oral
antibiotics, the scientific community is focusing on a new target: the 26.6
million pounds of such drugs fed to farm animals in the United States each
year. Both Congress and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are getting
into the fray, which is growing increasingly urgent as more and more
bacteria become resistant to lifesaving antibiotics.

Critics of antibiotic use by the agriculture industry say the bulk
of these drugs are fed to healthy animals to promote growth and to prevent,
rather than treat, illness. For instance, when a few chickens get sick, an
entire flock of perhaps 35,000 birds will be given antibiotics to prevent
the infection from spreading.

``Antibiotics make the animals grow faster and bigger, so there is
more meat,'' said Dr. Tamar Barlam, director of the antibiotic resistance
project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in
Washington, D.C. ``If animals are sick, that is an appropriate use of

Scientists fear that eating animals given antibiotics passes on
drug-resistant bacteria to people. There is also concern about the
resistant bacteria getting into slaughterhouses, manure and rivers.
Next Monday the FDA will hold a preliminary hearing to determine
whether it should withdraw its 1995 approval of fluoroquinolone for the
treatment of sick poultry. The antibiotic is similar to Cipro, which is used to
treat anthrax, among other infections, in humans.

The Bayer Corp., manufacturer of the animal drug, is challenging the
FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, which has proposed withdrawing the
approval. Ron Phillips, spokesman for the Animal Health Institute, a trade
association of pharmaceutical companies, says the FDA is acting

``So far, there's just no data that demonstrates the link from
animals to humans,'' Phillips said. ``There is a great deal of data and science
on our side that shows that limited use of fluoroquinolones doesn't have a
human health impact.''

But one person who doesn't buy that argument is U.S. Rep. Sherrod
Brown, D-Lorain. He has introduced legislation that would ban the use of
fluoroquinolone in farm animals.

``The science is good,'' Brown said. ``Nobody except for the food
companies and pharmaceuticals says otherwise. If you allow corporate
agriculture and pharmaceuticals to run the food supply system, you end up with bad
public health policies.''

Brown's bill also would ban the nontherapeutic and preventive use of
eight classes of antibiotics prescribed for both humans and animals.
The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have recommended
eliminating the use of antibiotics for nontherapeutic purposes.

But the United States is lagging behind Europe in tackling the
issue. In 1998, the European Union banned the use of all antibiotics for
growth promotion and other nontherapeutic uses.

Cost of overuse The cost of doing nothing about the overuse of antibiotics is high.

A recent New York Times story quoted spokesmen from poultry giants
Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms as saying that they have voluntarily
diminished or stopped the use of antibiotics in healthy chickens.
Dr. Marguerite Erme, a disease control specialist at the Akron
Health Department, is especially concerned that some strains of salmonella
have developed a resistance to fluoroquinolones, which are used to treat
a wide range of disorders, including respiratory and urinary tract
infections, gonorrhea and campylobacteriosis.

``You don't want to knock out a whole class of drugs that are
essential for fighting disease in humans,'' Erme said.
Dr. Blaise Congeni, director of infectious diseases at Children's
Hospital Medical Center of Akron, said what makes antibiotic use in animals
even more worrisome is that the animals are fed a low dose over the
course of their lifetimes. Human studies have shown that taking low doses of
antibiotics for a long time is dangerous because it allows surviving
bacteria to form resistance.

``You want to get a rapid and complete kill,'' Congeni said.
Preventing illness But the Animal Health Institute's Phillips argues that not using
antibiotics preventively will result in sick animals.

``We know that in the life cycle of a chicken or a cow they will get
sick at certain times if we don't treat them,'' he said. ``Consumers
expect meat that is safe. We are raising healthy animals.''
Critics counter that less crowded and more humane housing of animals
will solve many of their health problems.

``Because the farms are bigger, there are more animals in a confined
space, which means more bacteria can be spread,'' said Barlam, of the
Center for Science in the Public Interest.

She compares the dispute between scientists and the animal drug
companies to the old debate over whether smoking causes cancer.
Given the public health ramifications of the issue, Barlam said, we
should err on the side of public safety.

``Purely for economic reasons, we haven't had the motivation to
solve this problem,'' she said. ``Even if (giving drugs to animals) is just 20
percent of the problem, you should do something about it. We've been given
every warning signal. Let's act before people do land in hospitals.''

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