Battle over antibiotics returns to Congress

A Texas feedlot owner thinks a bill banning the use of antibiotics on animal farms would mean bad business for him and others in his industry.

WASHINGTON — A Texas feedlot owner thinks a bill banning the use of antibiotics on animal farms would mean bad business for him and others in his industry.

“It would add to our costs and eat into our profit,” said Glenn Polhemus, owner of the San Angelo Feed Yard in Miles, Texas.

He uses antibiotics as additives in animal feed to keep his animals healthy, which he believes is common practice on operations like his. Taking antibiotics out of the equation would mean more animals lost to death.

But lawmakers in Washington are pushing to take away his and other farmers’ ability to prevent disease through such uses of medication.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., reintroduced a bill that would phase out the use of the drugs on animal feedlots unless the animals are legitimately sick.

Proponents of the bill say the practice of regularly feeding livestock such as cattle, pigs and chickens low doses of antibiotics in their food and water breeds strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be dangerous to humans.

Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant co-CEO Steve Ells and microbiologist Dr. Stuart Levy, director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University in Boston, are among the bill’s supporters.

Ells pointed out that he sees a demand for meat raised without antibiotics. Chipotle started serving meat from naturally raised animals nine years ago, and Ells said their profits have risen by double digits every year until last year.

“Our success proves that people are willing to pay more for higher quality meat,” Ells said.

But Polhemus disagrees.

In the livestock business since 1971, Polhemus thinks higher costs for producers would mean higher costs for consumers, too, eventually.

“There might be some consumers out there who are into a niche product like that and would be willing to pay those very high prices,” he said. “But it would be ridiculous to say all American consumers would.”

Texas A and M University animal sciences researcher Ron Gill said barring antibiotics would decrease farm efficiency by about 15 per cent, and more animals would need to be used to produce the same amount of product we have today. This would ultimately affect the consumer’s pocketbook.

“With the way the economy is right now, we’re trying to do everything we can to produce the same quality product at the lowest cost,” he said. “If this were based on sound science and data, I would back it up — but it’s not.”

Gill said there’s skepticism in his field about how accurate research against antibiotic use on farms really is, and U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, agrees.

“Any decision regarding the use of antibiotics in animal feed lots should be based on sound science and facts,” Conaway said. “There is no evidence that the antibiotics used have contributed to increased resistance to humans.”

Conaway thinks the regulations already in place by the federal Food and Drug Administration are enough to patrol antibiotic resistance.

A recent column in BEEF Magazine by Kansas State University veterinary professor Mike Apley supports this.

Whenever an antibiotic is used off-label or for reasons other than to fix illnesses, it has to be approved by the FDA, he wrote.

“The regulations are already there to ensure we make the best decisions when a veterinarian determines that extra-label use is necessary,” he wrote.

But other scientists and activists think these drugs are being abused by the livestock industry.

“From a medical standpoint, antibiotics are a miracle discovery,” said Daniel Imhoff, a California activist, author and publisher on issues related to the environment and farming. “They are our only defense against deadly bacteria. When these huge factory farms use them as daily routine, they’re taking that medical miracle away from us.”

According to Slaughter, 18,000 people in the United States died last year from MRSA, or methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, the latest in a series of “super bugs” or bacteria that can’t be treated by antibiotics.

She and others contend antibiotics use on farms helps foster these bugs.

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