Winds of Change: Antibiotics in Livestock

The New York Times has a really good piece on the coming rules regarding the amount of antibiotics that can be given to confinement livestock.

Now, after decades of debate, the Food and Drug Administration appears poised to issue its strongest guidelines on animal antibiotics yet, intended to reduce what it calls a clear risk to human health. They would end farm uses of the drugs simply to promote faster animal growth and call for tighter oversight by veterinarians.

The agency’s final version is expected within months, and comes at a time when animal confinement methods, safety monitoring and other aspects of so-called factory farming are also under sharp attack. The federal proposal has struck a nerve among major livestock producers, who argue that a direct link between farms and human illness has not been proved. The producers are vigorously opposing it even as many medical and health experts call it too timid.

Scores of scientific groups, including the American Medical Association and the Infectious Diseases Society of America, are calling for even stronger action that would bar most uses of key antibiotics in healthy animals, including use for disease prevention, as with Mr. Rowles’s piglets. Such a bill is gaining traction in Congress.

What a CAFO looks like

In case you are not familiar with the situation, often pigs, chickens and even cows are put into caged areas much to small for any living creature move around freely.  These confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs) result in large amounts of animal waste that creates an ideal breeding ground for bacterial infection among the animals.  Farmers are aware of this and supplement their animal feeds with a range of antibiotics.

But the point here is more nuanced.  The battle over the line for antibiotic use on the farm center around their use as a growth promotion agent in animals.  Many CAFO farmers have learned that antibiotic cocktails cause their chicken to grow faster, their pigs to grow larger, etc.  Ag-centric scholarly journals have dubbed these agents ‘antibiotic growth promoters’ (AGPs) and they are subject of the FDA’s scrutiny.  Here is a good review of how they have been used:

Public health officials note that antibiotic resistance has grown by this abundant use of antibiotics.  The use is so abundant that is far outpaces the amount of antibiotics used by human beings.  According the Union of Concerned Scientists – a reputable NGO - non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock represents over 70% of the total amount of antibiotics created in the US.  The FDA is listening to those worries, which have been ignored up until now, with new ears.

Imagine if you had to live your life in a subway car with 300 of your closest friends.  It wouldn’t take long before somebody got the sniffles and, pretty soon, the whole car would be sick.  That’s the basic scenario at the CAFO that farmers are worried about.  Public health officials are worried about what happens if those resistant strains of bacteria get out of the CAFO and jump into humans.

This new FDA rule will not be an easy sell.  The agriculture and public health industries are extremely well connected on Capitol Hill and I’m not sure who’s dollar bills will look better to elected officials. I see major resistance shaping the end product here.

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