Dr. Paul's Research Perspectives
Water, antibiotics and Animal Farm

A U.S. ban on sub-therapeutic antibiotic use in livestock production is long overdue

By Paul Hepperly

Editors' note:
As New Farm Research and Training Manager at The Rodale Institute, Dr. Paul Hepperly has been a regular contributor to NewFarm.org for some time, providing research updates, op-ed pieces, and white papers on topics like carbon sequestration in organic farming systems.

None of those venues do full justice to the range of Paul's experience, however. Paul grew up on a family farm in Illinois and holds a Ph.D. in plant pathology, an M.S. in agronomy and a B.S. in psychology from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He has worked for the USDA Agricultural Research Service, in academia, and for a number of private seed companies, including Asgrow, Pioneer, and DeKalb. He has overseen research in Hawaii, Iowa, Puerto Rico, and Chile, and investigated such diverse crops as soybeans, corn, sorghum, sunflowers, ginger, and papaya. He has witnessed the move toward biotech among the traditional plant breeding community and the move toward organics among new wave of upcoming young farmers. Beford coming to the Rodale Institute Paul worked with hill farmers in India to help them overcome problems with ginger root rot in collaboration with Winrock Intermational.

Now we've decided to give Paul his own column, in which he can report on agricultural research from around the world and reflect on its relevance to The Rodale Institute's research program and to the progress of sustainable agriculture more generally in light of his own broad perspective. Enjoy.

November 9, 2004: Antibiotics are microorganism-produced chemicals that kill or stop the growth of other bacteria or fungi. They are miraculous tools for previously difficult-to-control deadly bacterial pathogens responsible for serious human diseases.

Although antibiotics were specifically designed for treating human health emergencies, their use for raising livestock animals has proliferated. In the cattle, swine, and poultry industries, massive amounts of antibiotics are routinely mixed into feed in order to promote growth rather than combat disease and as prophylactic treatment to offset unnatural diets and unhealthy living conditions.

Prophylactic and otherwise unnecessary uses of antibiotics abound in human medicine as well. U.S.-raised animals in the 1950s received 2 million pounds per year of antibiotics in their feed compared to 50 million pounds today—a 2,500-percent increase. A large percentage of these drugs pass into the environment. (An EPA analysis revealed that as much as 80 percent of orally administered antibiotics pass through animals and humans unutilized.) (Editor's Note: The FDA recently approved another non-medicinal use for an antibiotic by allowing dairy farmers to use Rumensin® to increase milk production efficiency. Read more>)

A landmark 2002 U.S. Geological Survey report turned up dozens of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals in America’s streams and rivers. Colorado State University associate professor of civil engineering Ken Carlson led a recent two-year study pinpointing concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as major contributors to high antibiotic levels in the Cache la Poudre River in Colorado. The presence of the ionophore class of antibiotics found downstream from CAFOs offered conclusive proof of their origin, since these antibiotics are not used in human applications. Statistics show that close to half of all antibiotics used are employed in agriculture. With these animal applications of antibiotics, their efficacy for humans is jeopardized by increased development of resistant bacteria.

Colorado State’s Professor Carlson stressed the need for management practices that minimize the environmental release of antibiotics. In recent years, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and the New England Journal of Medicine have all come out officially favoring a ban on the use of antibiotics that have human applications for use in animal feeds as growth stimulants. (Organic producers do not use antibiotics, relying instead on sound animal husbandry practices such as providing sanitary living conditions, fresh air, and proper diets.)

To illustrate the sad state of antibiotic abuse in our animal-based food, Consumer Reports released a study of store-bought chicken, testing 484 fresh samples in 25 cities. The human bacterial pathogen Campylobacter jejuni was present in 42 percent of the samples, with 66 percent of the strains showing resistance to antibiotics. As Stanley Katz of Rutger’s Cook College put it bluntly, “I see a lot of unnecessary deaths [from this situation]; that’s what I see!”

Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, has been studying the medical risks of large-scale, concentrated poultry production in the Delmarva Peninsula (which includes portions of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia). Dr. Silbergeld found that 40 percent of chicken harvest laborers (also called catchers) in CAFOs in that region tested positive for Campylobacter bacteria, an infection that causes cramps, diarrhea, stomach pain and fever. “Industrialized food is not a pretty picture,” she commented.

In 1986, 1998, and 1999 respectively, Sweden, Denmark, and the European Union banned growth-promoting use of four antibiotics used to treat human infections. As early as 1977, the FDA asked Congress to restrict the use of penicillin and tetracycline in animal feed. Under strong lobbying from the poultry industry, these efforts did not succeed. The National Academy of Sciences found “a link between the use antibiotics and animal feed and the development of bacterial resistance to these drugs and human disease.” Still, no positive action has been taken on this front.

While Congress has found no political will to protect the food system, fast-food giants under public scrutiny such as Wendy’s, Popeye’s and McDonald’s have ordered their large contract suppliers of beef and chicken to stop putting antibiotics used for human disease control into animal feed.

Consumers concerned about this epidemic of antibiotic abuse can take positive action by buying certified-organic animal products. In this way, they avoid the outrageous medications that conventional animals receive and do not become an unknowing party to the contamination of our water system with antibiotics.

Dr. Stanley Katz of Rutgers University has likened the present industrialized animal production system as something akin to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The animals are taking revenge for their mistreatment under industrial management by spinning out antibiotic-resistant pathogens and waste into our environment. We only have ourselves to blame.

It’s time we put animals back onto pasture under healthy diets and natural conditions, thus serving them and ourselves well. When we domesticated animals, we entered into a contract with them; at this point, we have defaulted upon that contract and are paying the consequences.

For more information, check out some of the following:

Bonné, Jon. 2004. Livestock antibiotics found in waterways. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6299642/
Carlson et al. 2004. Antibiotics used for growth in food animals making their way into waterways. www.newswise.com/p/articles/view/507755/

Environmental Media Services. 2004. Agricultural use of antibiotics. http://www.ems.org/antibiotics/antibiotics_food.html

Lazaroff, Cat. 2002. Drugs, chemicals pollute U.S. waterways. http://www.rioweb.org/Archive/year2002/March02/

Nutt, Amy Ellis. 2003. In soil, water, food and air. www.factoryfarming.com/news_starledger.htm

USGS. 2002. Pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other organic wastewater contaminants in U. S. streams, 1999-2000: A national reconnaissance. http://toxics.usgs.gov/regional/emc.html

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