Bill would limit antibiotic use in livestockFeeding antibiotics to livestock that are not sick poses a major threat to public health, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said Monday. Slaughter, chair of the House Rules Committee, spoke at a hearing to discuss a bill that would require the federal government to deny or withdraw approval for agricultural use of drugs that contain antibiotics critical for human medicine.
By: By Supriya Sinhababu, Scripps Howard Foundation Wire, The Jamestown Sun
WASHINGTON — Feeding antibiotics to livestock that are not sick poses a major threat to public health, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said Monday.
Slaughter, chair of the House Rules Committee, spoke at a hearing to discuss a bill that would require the federal government to deny or withdraw approval for agricultural use of drugs that contain antibiotics critical for human medicine.
“Approximately 70 percent of antibiotics and related drugs produced in the U.S. are given to cattle, pigs and chicken to promote growth and to compensate for crowded, unsanitary, stressful conditions,” Slaughter said.
Using drugs on animals non-therapeutically, or for purposes other than treating disease, gives rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, several committee members and witnesses said. These tougher strains have been found in grocery store meat and poultry and may be contaminating groundwater in rural areas, leading to harder-to-treat infections in humans, Slaughter said.
“Resistant bacterial infections increase health care costs by $4 billion to $5 billion each year,” she said.
Under the bill, H.R. 1549, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services could approve non-therapeutic agricultural use of antibiotics for only those drugs shown to pose no threat to human health.
“FDA supports the idea of H.R. 1549 to phase out growth promotion and feed efficiency uses of antimicrobials in animals,” said Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner for food and drugs at the Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA currently approves antibiotics in animal agriculture for treatment, disease prevention, bacterial control and growth promotion. It considers only growth promotion to be non-therapeutic use.
Continuing non-therapeutic use could harm international trade, said Margaret Mellon, a director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The European Union has banned non-therapeutic antibiotic use in animals and can restrict imports of products from treated animals.
“The U.S. animal agriculture industry is at risk of following the example of the U.S. auto industry and failing to see where the market is going,” Mellon said. “Increasingly, consumers are seeking meat from animals raised without these antibiotics. International competitors are beginning to meet this demand.”
Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, was the only witness to raise major objections to the bill.
“H.R. 1549 will result in more sick animals, and it is my fear is that it will leave us with a potentially less safe food supply,” he said.
Boswell, a member of the Agriculture Committee, referred to hearings at which witnesses said the FDA already puts antibiotics through a rigorous and expensive approval process.
These witnesses also testified that when Denmark banned non-therapeutic antibiotic use in the late 1990s, it led to decreases in swine health and had no major impact on public health, Boswell said.
This conclusion ran counter to a World Health Organization study cited by several committee members and witnesses. The study said that swine health was not affected in Denmark and that the number of resistant bacteria decreased dramatically after the ban.
Boswell said a ban in the U.S. would lead to additional costs exceeding $1 billion to the pork industry over 10 years. Iowa is the largest pork-producing state.
Committee members agreed these findings were important to examine, but the legislators were not swayed.
“I believe the bulk of scientific evidence does show that at least a large and significant part of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that infect humans does stem from overuse of antibiotics in animals,” said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.
Polis said meat-producing districts should not fear the new legislation because constituents like his would be “thrilled” to pay slightly more for meat guaranteed to be safe.
In his testimony supporting the bill, Steve Ells, co-CEO of the Chipotle restaurant chain, said profitably serving antibiotic-free meat is difficult, but not impossible.
“We have found a way to serve more expensive, sustainably raised ingredients, but in a way that remains affordable to the average customer,” Ells said. “Most restaurant companies can only remain affordable and produce attractive returns by lowering food costs.”
Substantial numbers of consumers favor antibiotic-free animal products, committee members agreed
“They’ve voted with their dollars already,” Polis said of his constituents, citing Chipotle’s success.
Slaughter seemed to agree.
“I’m old enough to remember when a pork chop really tasted good,” she said.