Drug-Resistant Bacteria On the Rise: Overuse of Antibiotics In Animals May Be a Cause

Bill Rice- At feeding time on Marty Whitney's farm in Wellington, about 40 miles west of Cleveland, a few dozen mature hogs clamour for position as Whitney entices them with buckets of feed. The farm has been in the family for generations and has bred and raised hogs for about 30 years. Today Whitney maintains a herd of about a thousand, ranging from 2-day-old piglets to mature breeders. Like many Ohio farmers, Whitney prepares his own livestock feed from corn and soybeans, along with some nutritional supplements. And every couple of weeks Whitney adds a low level dose of antibiotic to ward off infections.

Marty Whitney- It's an immune builder, and as you can see on the bag it lists dosages for different animal, it's just something to keep you healthy.

BR- Adding such mixtures to livestock feed is a common practice. Not only are the animals disease-free when they're sent to the slaughterhouse, but healthy hogs tend to grow faster and are ready for market sooner. The dosage, says Whitney, is far lower than what a doctor would prescribe to treat, say, a sick child.

MW- It's what we call a maintenance style product just to help the body, because they don't have any real differences in their bodies than us as far as immune systems, they need to have it built up and they need to have help.

BR- But low level use of antibiotics in animal husbandry is under fire from scientists and environmentalists. As bacteria are continually subjected to antibiotics that kill them, they often develop resistance, and the drugs become ineffective. This is a growing problem in treating illness in humans, says Rebecca Goldberg, a senior scientist with the group Environmental Defense in new York. And, she says, feeding regular, low level doses of antibiotics to livestock adds fuel to the fire.

Rebecca Goldberg- Some of these, for example penicillin, tetracycline, aritheromycin, are also drugs that are important in human medicine or closely related to drugs that are used to treat sick people. And by using these drugs routinely in animal feeds, we select for the evolution of bacteria that are resitant to the drugs.

BR- And in some cases, Goldberg says, that may mean that people suffering from bacterial infections cannot be successfully treated. There are already many drug-resistant bacterial strains, says physician Tamar Barlin, Director of the Project on Antibiotic Resistance at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. One example, Barlan says, is entrococci, which is resistant to all but the most recently approved antibiotics. She says it's a relatively wimpy bug, not particularly dangerous to otherwise healthy people. But, she says bacteria have a scary ability to pass genetic traits between species.

Tamar Barlin- If that resistant pattern gets into a staph bug, a staffococcus, which can strike down healthy young people and cause severe illness, than that would be truly a disaster. There are such extensive resistances that have been shown and we know that this resistant can jump from bug to bug.

BR- Alarm over drug resistant bacteria has caught the attention of Ohio Congressman Sherrod Brown. Brown, a democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would closely scrutinize non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture. Specifically, the bill would require proof that use other than for the treatment of existing disease will not adversely affect human health or treatment of human diseases.

Farm advocates say they share concerns about resistance, but Brown's bill is not the way to go. Dick Esler heads the Ohio Pork Council.

Dick Esler- That sounds like a zero tolerance. There is no way anything would ever be cleared with a zero tolerance, and that sounds like that's what's being asked there.

BR- Esler says antibiotics are already extensively scrutinized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and that the threat of overuse is overblown.

DE- Before any drug or antibiotic is cleared by the USDA, it's getting so much more rigid today than it ever was before that there has to be a tremendous number of tests done. In fact many companies are abandoning some of the products just because of the scrutiny they're under. So I think we've already got, thru FDA, tremendous safeguards built in to what we're doing.

BR- Sherrod Brown's bill has made little progress in the republican controlled house, despite, he says, ten cosponsors and the backing of 19 public interest and science groups. He says he's hopeful the measure will get more attention as public awareness of the issue continues to grow. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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