Personal Health

Free Antibiotics -- in U.S. Food and Water

The FDA has quietly revoked a ban on the routine dosing of farm animals with antibiotics.

The July 3 FDA directive was straightforward.

Routine dosing of farm animals with cephalosporin antibiotics to prevent disease and promote growth would be prohibited effective Oct. 1, 2008.

"We are issuing this order based on evidence that extralabel use of these drugs in food-producing animals will likely cause an adverse event in humans and, as such, presents a risk to the public health."

No kidding. The American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, Infectious Disease Society of America, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Pew Commission have all indicted livestock antibiotics for creeping human antibiotic resistance -- including last-chance antibiotics.

"Antibiotic-Resistant Bugs in the 21st Century -- A Clinical Super-Challenge," read an article in the January 29, 2009 New England Journal of Medicine.

But on Nov. 25, after getting a trough full from agribusiness and big pharma -- 70 percent of whose antibiotics sales are agricultural -- the FDA quietly revoked the ban to "more fully consider the many substantive comments it received" about the prohibition.

Even the Subcomittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry's hearings on the Hill in September flew under the radar.

They were called hearings to "review advances in animal health within the livestock industry." Hello?

Still the assemblage of reps from the egg, chicken, turkey, milk, pork and cattle industries and the Animal Health Institute representing Monsanto, Pfizer, Dow, Bayer, Wyeth, Novartis, et al., left no doubt whose factory farms were threatened by a national detox.

(Nor did the American Veterinary Medical Association headed by former USDA top vet Ron DeHaven fail to side with factory farmers against its own patients. Surprise.)

"To raise turkeys without antibiotics would increase the incidence of illness in turkey flocks," whined Dr. Michael Ryblot, director of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Turkey Federation, who called a typical 227-acre turkey farm "small."

Turkeys couldn't be crammed together without antibiotics, which "would result in a decrease in density or an increase in the amount of land needed to raise the additional turkeys needed to meet the consumer demand," admitted Ryblot.

And since animals on growth-producing antibiotics -- GPAs -- need less food because feed is assimilated more efficiently, perhaps by killing intestinal bacteria, "an additional 175,500 tons of feed would be required for the turkey industry," warned Ryblot -- real money.

And there was more.

You think our farms produce a lot of waste now, said Ryblot. Take turkeys off their around-the-clock meds, and "the decrease in feed conversion" will result "in an increase in manure," and more land tied up in crop production, he testified.

Take that, environmentalists.

Robert D. Byrne, Ph.D., senior vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Milk Producers Federation, conceded that antibiotic-laced "milk replacer" is fed to 22 to 70 percent of dairy calves, and antibiotic-laced dry cow treatments are "near universal" for cows on U.S. farms.

But since milk is tested for residues, and farmers dumping positive milk in tankers must pay for the entire tanker as punishment -- plus, they can't sell any milk "until a negative farm test result is obtained" -- the public is safe.

Nor do you have to worry about eggs.

Despite FDA inspections that found "ceftiofur was being administered by egg injection rather than by the approved method of administering the drug  to day-old chicks," and despite detection of antibiotic residue in egg yolks of treated chickens -- after withdrawal periods and after cooking -- a study in the January 2005 issue of Molecular Nutrition & Food Research said antibiotics are not "a food-safety issue for eggs," said Blair Van Zetten, on behalf of United Egg Producers at the hearings.

Of course, most people realize antibiotics are probably in the water (follow the dead fish) and meat. But so are resistant microbes, it turns out. Scientists at the University of Iowa College of Public Health found methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) -- the granddaddy of antibiotic resistant mircobes-- in Iowa pigs in the January 2009 journal, PLoS. And MRSA strains were found in beef, pork, veal, lamb/mutton, chicken, turkey, fowl and game in a study in the December 2008 International Journal of Food Microbiology.

Now antibiotics are turning up in crops too.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota found antibiotic residues in the vegetables after only six weeks of greenhouse propagation, says Environmental Health Service -- much less than a normal growing season.

"Around 90 percent of these drugs that are administered to animals end up being excreted either as urine or manure," said Holly Dolliver a professor of crop and soil sciences at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls who was on the research team.

In addition to MRSA-like infections, cephalosporins can cause diarrhea, nausea, rash, electrolyte disturbances, vomiting, headache, dizziness, oral and vaginal candidiasis, pseudomembranous colitis, eosinophilia, clotting disorders, Antabuse-like reactions and fever. Not a complete list.

Researchers at Henry Ford Hospital also suspect antibiotics in the epidemic of pediatric asthma and allergies. And what about our national obesity, ask others, given the fact that antibiotics fatten animals?

Meanwhile pharma sales to the ag industry -- known as "advances in animal health within the livestock industry" on the Hill -- rose five percent in 2007 according to the Animal Health Institute.

2009 should be a good year too.

 

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist who frequently writes about the impact of the pharmaceutical, food and gun industries on public health. A former medical copywriter, her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, as well as on the BBC and in the original National Lampoon.
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