Livestock gobble up the antibiotics

Melissa Healy. Los Angeles Times
December 14, 2010, 12:35 p.m.

The U.S.-raised animals we eat consumed about 29 million pounds of antibiotics in the last year alone, according to a first-ever Food and Drug Administration accounting of antimicrobial drug use by the American livestock industry.

The release of the figures — in a little-noticed posting on the FDA’s website Friday — came in response to a 2008 law requiring the federal government to collect and disseminate antibiotic use in livestock as part of the Animal Drug User Fee Act. The Union of Concerned Scientists, which authored a 2001 report that was highly critical of the routine practice of feeding antibiotics to livestock, estimated the yearly animal consumption of antibiotics to be eight times as large as the volume of antibiotics produced for human consumption in the U.S.

Mardi Mellon, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment program, said the new report corroborates the 2001 findings of the group’s report, titled “Hogging It.”

“Antimicrobial use in U.S. agriculture is way out of proportion” to what is necessary, said Mellon. “That poses dire risk to human health by undermining the effectiveness of these drugs,” she added.

Farmers feed these medications to the animals they raise for market in an effort to prevent disease from spreading among poultry, pork, dairy herds and beef cattle. Some medications also promote faster growth in many animals. The ubiquitous use of these medications is controversial because they are often used to counter the effects of raising animals in poor conditions.

But they represent a major public health concern too: the widespread administration of antibiotics to prevent infections in animals has made those same antibiotics less effective in fighting off disease in animals and in humans. That is because, when under constant bombardment by existing antibiotic medications, the viruses that cause disease evolve at an accelerated rate just to stay alive. The results: new viruses that are resistant to existing antibiotics, and a population that is increasingly vulnerable to them.

The American Medical Assn. this summer called antibiotic resistance “a major public health problem” and called on the Obama administration and Congress to take action to address it.

The Obama administration recognizes the problem, but has not acted to stem antibiotics’ use on animals, said Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We hope the FDA will motivate the administration to take concrete steps to protect public health by limiting inappropriate antimicrobial use,” she added.

Food purchased from local farms, or seasonal local producers will be less prone to excessive medication than food produced by large factory farms or imported from distant countries.

Producers used more Tetracyclines (including Chlortetracycline and Oxytetracycline) than any other antibiotics–a total of 4.6 million kilograms of the medication yearly.