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July 13, 2009
By: Hilzoy

The Wrong Way To Use Antibiotics

Good news from the NYT:

"The Obama administration announced Monday that it would seek to ban many routine uses of antibiotics in farm animals in hopes of reducing the spread of dangerous bacteria in humans.

In written testimony to the House Rules Committee, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of food and drugs, said feeding antibiotics to healthy chickens, pigs and cattle -- done to encourage rapid growth -- should cease. And Dr. Sharfstein said farmers should no longer be able to use antibiotics in animals without the supervision of a veterinarian.

Both practices lead to the development of bacteria that are immune to many treatments, he said.

The hearing was held to discuss a measure proposed by Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee. It would ban seven classes of antibiotics important to human health from being used in animals, and would restrict other antibiotics to therapeutic and some preventive uses.

The legislation is supported by the American Medical Association, among other groups, but opposed by farm organizations like the National Pork Producers Council. The farm lobby’s opposition makes its passage unlikely, but advocates are hoping to include the measure in the legislation to revamp the health care system.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that as much as 70 percent of antibiotics used in the United States is given to healthy chickens, pigs and cattle to encourage their growth or to prevent illnesses."

This is really important. Antibiotics make diseases that used to be fatal into minor annoyances. But resistance to antibiotics is rising, and we are not developing new antibiotics to replace the ones bacteria are becoming resistant to. This is in part because spending money to develop new antibiotics doesn't make sense for pharmaceutical companies.

For one thing, antibiotics are used for short periods of time; the real money is in drugs for chronic conditions that have to be taken indefinitely. For another, if a new antibiotic were developed, it would probably be held in reserve and used only when no other antibiotic worked, so that bacteria would not become resistant to it. This is interference with the market. We are interfering for very good public health reasons: we want to have a drug that bacteria are not resistant to in reserve. But that means that a new antibacterial will not dominate its competitors if it proves to work better than they do.

We need to find a way to promote the development of new antibiotics. In the meantime, however, we should try not to do things that promote antibiotic resistance. Feeding antibiotics to farm animals not to treat diseases, but just to make them grow faster, is one of those things. There are lots of ways of promoting animals' growth that do not put people's lives at risk. We should find them.

(Note: this would probably also lead to improvements in the treatment of farm animals. When farm animals are fed antibiotics, you can get away with much more dubious hygiene than you could otherwise. This would also be a very good thing -- though I don't support factory farming in any form.)

Hilzoy 9:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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Comments

IMHO, Obama is still a 'True Stud' of a politician; a forward-thinking, humane person; and a man of the People. GObama! THIS is good policy. I applaud you sir.

Posted by: In what respect, Charlie? on July 13, 2009 at 10:08 PM | PERMALINK

goddamit!! what a nightmare this corporate-dictated world has become.

so 70% of all antibiotics for pigs, chickens and cattle, eh?

and what is the percentage of chickens, pigs and cows that goes into fast food, fried food, poisonous junk that bloats and kills?

... no wonder the gods have fled, we have murdered them and are now busy murdering ourselves.

Posted by: neill on July 13, 2009 at 10:25 PM | PERMALINK

it's a good step toward raising awareness of a serious problem but as the story noted, it's not likely to pass unfortunately.

there's no legislative solution to this, at least none that i can think of, but a related problem is the overuse of antibiotics in humans for colds and flu and other relatively minor viral infections prescribed not because they'll cure anything (they won't) but so the doctor can pacify his or her patients.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on July 13, 2009 at 10:39 PM | PERMALINK

That 70% is a very high estimate. The others are closer to half of that. In addition, some of the most widely used "antibiotics" in feedlots and poultry are actually coccidiostats that have no counterparts in human medicine.

Also, the testing of animal products for antibiotic residues is top notch, not like the fiasco with food imported from abroad. Every tank load of milk is checked and most meat is checked. The antibiotics that have been approved for animal use have been extensively tested to see how long they are retained in the body of that particular species of animal and then twice that time is the withdrawl period.

Removing antibiotics from routine use in animal husbandry might be a good idea from the economic standpoint of the farmer because with decreased production, he'll get better prices. And it could help the family farm because more individual attention would be required with fewer animals. The corporate farmers would run too much of a risk with epidemics such as diarrhea and pneumonia to be profitable. Frankly, knowing the difference between the way vegetables are tested for pesticides and the way meat is tested for antibiotics, I'll grow my own veggies, thank you, and buy my meat.

Posted by: Texas Aggie on July 13, 2009 at 11:32 PM | PERMALINK

A comment on the note by Mr. Jackson is that when you find resistant bacteria, it isn't (until recently) in the general population. It is in the hospitals where the nasty bugs are found.

Posted by: Texas Aggie on July 13, 2009 at 11:34 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, good effing luck against the farm lobby. That'll go right through the house and senate.

Right.

Right idea though.

Posted by: nothere on July 14, 2009 at 12:07 AM | PERMALINK

This is the type of thing (along with Cheney revelations) that make us lucky to have Obama and not Cheney.

Posted by: grinning cat on July 14, 2009 at 12:08 AM | PERMALINK

"The Obama administration announced Monday that it would seek to ban many routine uses of antibiotics in farm animals in hopes of reducing the spread of dangerous bacteria in humans. -- NYT

Looong overdue, though still unlikely to pass through the "beholden" Congress. And, while we're talking about trying to catch moonbeams... Could we ban, or at least reduce, the use of hormones in those same "food animals", especially chickens? Don't know about y'all but I don't think that tits on 5yr olds -- male and female -- are at all becoming.

Posted by: exlibra on July 14, 2009 at 12:17 AM | PERMALINK

Nice to see the return to science-based policy making.

Posted by: Disputo on July 14, 2009 at 1:19 AM | PERMALINK

Wow, this seems sensible. Amazing the government would do it. Oh wait, the legislative part of the government has to act on it. Never mind. It was a nice thought, though.

Posted by: fostert on July 14, 2009 at 4:53 AM | PERMALINK

Amen to all of that. Now let's get antibiotics out of hand soaps. They serve no useful purpose (soap alone kills bacteria on ones hands), and also contribute to antibiotic resistance.

Posted by: xtalguy on July 14, 2009 at 7:45 AM | PERMALINK

That's not antibiotics in hand soaps (and dish detergent), it's an antibacterial chemical. Not at all the same thing, but unnecessary. Soap or detergent already kills germs anyway.

Posted by: emjayay on July 14, 2009 at 9:09 AM | PERMALINK

Hilzoy wrote: "this would probably also lead to improvements in the treatment of farm animals."

I doubt it. Why? Because ...

Hilzoy wrote: "When farm animals are fed antibiotics, you can get away with much more dubious hygiene than you could otherwise."

Without the antibiotics, more animals would die as a result of "dubious hygiene". That's an economic loss to the animal factories. But if it is cheaper to lose some more animals to bad hygiene then it is to improve the conditions of the animals, the animal factories will continue with the dubious hygiene and let the animals die.

And they aren't really animals, anyway -- they are "production units" according to the industry trade magazines. Just biological machines.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 14, 2009 at 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

Uncertain science here. The conditions animals are raised in undoubtedly leads to increased disease and mortality. Antibiotics are not, as cited, used to make them grow faster, but to prevent the disease caused by overcrowding. Eliminate the overcrowding, as California did by public mandate with its Proposition #? this year, and the need for antibiotics is probably eliminated, but the economics of raising those animals becomes absurd. (CA animal growers are almost certainly going to be moving to other states and to Mexico.) Paying $20.00/lb for beef may make us a more healthy nation, but this is not what the public has indicated that it wants.

Posted by: Bill H on July 14, 2009 at 10:39 AM | PERMALINK

We need to find a way to promote the development of new antibiotics.

DARPA?

Posted by: alan on July 14, 2009 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Good golly, I've been waiting for someone to ban these agribiotics for years. The Repubs, who are wedding to all the worst aspects of US industry (non-renewables, mining, animal farming, etc.) will of course get in the way. And if it makes meat cost more, well good.

Posted by: Neil B ♣ on July 14, 2009 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

As a cattle producer I see no problems with the use of antibiotics. All my calves never receive any antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal-bi-products. This year I have treated one ill animal with an antibiotic. These animals have id's and are removed at sales transfer. All animals are fed as naturals. Dr. Joshua Sharfstein must have very little understanding of the beef industry.

Posted by: cymoo1 on July 14, 2009 at 11:23 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: wheediape on August 1, 2009 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK
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