March 24, 2009 / 3:44 PM / in 10 years

Antibiotic ban on livestock may hurt U.S. food safety

Cows feed on grass as they roam the hills near Pleasanton, California March 23, 2007. A bill that would ban the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animals would hurt the health of livestock and poultry while compromising efforts to protect the safety of the country's food supply, the leader of the largest U.S. farm group said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Mike Blake

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill that would ban the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animals would hurt the health of livestock and poultry while compromising efforts to protect the safety of the country’s food supply, the leader of the largest U.S. farm group said on Tuesday.

Bob Stallman, president of the 6 million-member American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a letter to Congress that its members “carefully, judiciously and according to label instructions” use antibiotics to treat, prevent and control disease in animals.

“Antibiotic use in animals does not pose a serious public health threat,” said Stallman, who urged lawmakers to oppose the bill. “Restricting access to these important tools will jeopardize animal health and compromise our ability to contribute to public health through food safety” he added.

Industry groups that oppose the ban contend animal deaths would go up, producer costs would rise, meat output would drop and consumers would see prices climb. They contend there is no evidence that a public health threat has occurred because of the use of antibiotics in animals.

Introduced in the House of Representatives by Louise Slaughter and in the Senate by Edward Kennedy, the legislation, would ban the use of antibiotics important to human health from being used on cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry unless animals are ill.

Drug manufacturers would be allowed to sell antibiotics for nonhuman uses if they can show there is no danger to public health from microbes developing drug resistances.

Proponents of the ban say antibiotics are given to healthy animals over a long period of time to compensate for unsanitary and crowded conditions, and to promote weight gain, rather than to combat illness.

The concern is that the overuse of antibiotics in animals leads to new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As a result, people may be at risk of becoming sick by handling, eating meat or coming in contact with animals that have an antibiotic-resistant disease.

An estimated 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States go toward healthy livestock, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Reporting by Christopher Doering; editing by Lisa Shumaker

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