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By Staff | Apr 24, 2009

Many liberal constituencies are not friends of the livestock industry. Those constituencies are now testing out the limits of their power within the new Democratic Congress and administration, hoping to get the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency to do their bidding.

I don’t think they have been given the key to the city as some pragmatism exists that change needs to come slowly and deliberately. However, they will be pressing their agendas.

One issue that is going to be debated is antibiotic use in the livestock industry. Legislation has been introduced into both the U.S. Senate and House to ban use of antibiotics deemed important to human health from being used to treat cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry unless the animals are ill.

A majority of all antibiotics used in the U.S. go to preventative health programs of livestock. The concern is that use of antibiotics in feeding regimens to prevent disease in livestock leads to new strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Do livestock industries benefit from use of antibiotics in production regimes? Absolutely. But that economic interest is balanced against a public health issue.

Livestock industries have long argued that science be respected relative to these issues. How does the industry respond if the science goes against their economic interest? The bills do not ban use of these antibiotics to treat sick animals.

Without the general use of antibiotics, there would be more sick animals. So use doesn’t decline as much as opponents think, as more antibiotics are used for treatment. Anti-CAFO activists see this issue as another way to eliminate concentrated animal feeding operations.

They see the use of antibiotics in livestock production programs occurring because of crowded, or unsanitary conditions, of being confined. That contention is exaggerated, but there is a niche industry that seems to be doing well that offers meat labeled as “natural” or “humane” from livestock not treated with antibiotics. This meat typically costs more, but it has to because it has a higher cost of production.

A bill banning use of general antibiotics could actually damage this niche industry, blurring the differentiation between the two production systems. Economic benefit to an industry doesn’t offset a health risk. It all comes down to the science.

Louise Slaughter, the New york congresswoman who introduced the bill in the House, is a microbiologist. She obviously believes the science supports her bill.

A peer reviewed study by Medical Clinics of North America concluded that feeding drugs to healthy animals was a component in antibiotic resistance. When the debate is broken down under a microscope, I don’t believe there is much argument that drug resistant bacteria are not being produced.

The question then is whether they constitute any human health threat worthy of discontinuing general antibiotic use in livestock production systems.

The Farm Bureau has taken the lead opposing the bills, arguing in part that superbugs don’t survive on meat being cooked. I suspect they will have to do better than that argument. The fact these bugs are being produced will be enough for many to oppose use.

Nobody is going to care about added cost of production from banned use either if any connected health risk is proven.

Would banning the general use of antibiotics in livestock production result in humans being any safer? I expect only marginally so as other studies have shown 96 percent of antibiotic resistance in humans comes from human use of antibiotics.

There have been enough food safety issues arising that Congress is going to deal out some heightened oversight. The issue of antibiotic use by livestock industries is going to fall into that category.

The ethanol industry may get caught up in this controversy, too. Antibiotics are used in ethanol production. Minnesota Public Radio reported, “Mark von Keitz with the University of Minnesota’s Biotechnology Institute said that in ethanol production, the main enemy is a bacterial bug that produces lactic acid. What these organisms do is they also compete with the yeast for the sugar. If enough of the bacteria are present, von Keitz said fermentation can be ruined.

“It gets acidified to the point that the yeast is no longer able to properly produce ethanol and then you’re stuck with a big batch of corn mash.”

Corn mash doesn’t have much value, so to prevent what Mark von Keitz says could happen, they use antibiotics, penicillin and another called virginiamycin to kill unwanted bacteria. Again, Minnesota Public Radio noted, “Mark von Keitz found some bacteria that were, in fact, resistant when he sampled bacteria at four Midwest ethanol plants several years ago.

I think that you can see where this potentially could be going. If Congress bans use of antibiotics in feeding regimens, how will feeding distiller’s grain be affected?

David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet.

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