Pew report urges limiting antimicrobial use in animals

May 6, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – After a 2-year study of the effects of large-scale farm animal production, a panel of experts has called for phasing out the nontherapeutic use of antimicrobials in farm animals in order to maintain the effectiveness of antibiotics in humans.

The 100-page report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production says industrialized animal production often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment, and animal welfare.

The document, titled "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America," says limiting the use of antimicrobials in animals for reasons other than treating illness is necessary to reduce the risk of microbial resistance to medically important antibiotics. The panel also calls for increased monitoring and veterinary oversight of antimicrobial use in food animals, a disease-monitoring program to permit 48-hour traceback of each food animal's history, and creation of a federal "Food Safety Administration," among other steps.

"The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food," writes John W. Carlin, chair of the commission and former governor of Kansas, in the introduction to the report.

The study, which began in 2006, was funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The 15 authors of the report include experts in public policy, veterinary medicine, public health, agriculture, animal welfare, the food industry, and rural sociology.

In conducting the study, the commission visited production facilities; held two public hearings; consulted with industry stakeholders and public health, medical, and agriculture experts; and reviewed technical reports.

Defining industrial animal production
The report focuses on industrial farm animal production, referred to as IFAP, the system of raising food animals "in large numbers in enclosed structures that resemble industrial buildings more than they do a traditional barn." The document uses "IFAP" to mean the most intensive production practices, such as using gestation and farrowing crates in swine production, regardless of the size of the operation.

Raising many animals in close confinement increases the risk of spreading pathogens from animals to humans and promotes the emergence of resistant microbes as well as new pathogens, according to the report.

The risk of animal-to-human transmission is increased because workers in confinement facilities today are "often exposed to thousands of pigs or tens of thousands of chickens for eight or more hours each day," the report says. In addition, workers care for sick or dying animals daily, far more often than was the case on traditional farms.

The use of antibiotics to promote animal growth began in the poultry industry in the 1940s and has continued since, according to the commission. Resistance can develop fairly quickly in the presence of antimicrobial agents, and resistance genes can be transferred among bacterial species. The report says further that farmers can buy antimicrobials for livestock without a prescription or veterinary oversight, and some classes of antibiotics used in humans, such as penicillins and tetracyclines, are allowed in animal feed to promote growth.

Sweden banned the growth-promoting use of antibiotics in food animals in 1986, and Denmark followed suit in 1998, according to the report. In 2006 the European Union did the same. The document says the World Health Organization determined in 2002 that the Danish ban sharply reduced the food animal reservoir of antibiotic-resistant enterococci without affecting the overall health of the animals or significantly raising production costs.

US urged to ban new approvals
In its public health recommendations, the commission says the government should "phase out and ban" the nontherapeutic use of antimicrobials in animals. It calls for an immediate ban on new approvals of antimicrobials for such uses and for investigations of previously approved antimicrobials. It also recommends that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) provide programs to educate producers about how to raise food animals without growth-promoting antibiotics.

The commission also calls for steps to provide better information on the quantity and methods of antimicrobial use in animals:

  • Pharmaceutical companies should be required to provide calendar-year reports of the quantity of antimicrobials sold for use in animals.
  • Producers should be required to report the use of antimicrobials in food animals, and the data should be included in the USDA's National Animal Identification System.
  • As was urged by the National Research Council in 1999, federal agencies should develop a comprehensive plan to monitor antimicrobial use in food animals.

In other recommendations related to infectious disease concerns, the report calls for:

  • Improved monitoring and surveillance of antimicrobial resistance in the food supply, the environment, and animal and human populations
  • Increased veterinary oversight of all antimicrobial use in food animal production to prevent overuse and misuse of antimicrobials
  • Creation of "a disease-monitoring program and a fully integrated and robust national database for food animals to allow 48-hour traceback through phases of their production"

In addition, the report advocates the creation of a "Food Safety Administration" to combine the food safety responsibilities of the USDA, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies.

Criticism from industry
The Pew report has been criticized by agribusiness leaders. Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said every recommendation the commission made would increase food prices just as the world is facing a food supply crisis, according to a report in the industry newspaper Feedstuffs.

The National Pork Producers Council agreed that the recommendations would increase the cost of meat and of food animal production, according to Feedstuffs. The council said the commission was composed mostly of members "opposed to modern livestock production," the story said.

See also:

Full text of Pew Commission report

Apr 29 Pew Commission news release

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