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Advocates want reduction in antibiotics in meat; Industry says they're not the problem

Cooper McKim

Consumer and health advocates are calling on President Obama to stop the meat industry from giving animals antibiotics when they aren't sick.  The advocates said Tuesday that the practice leads to serious public health problems.

Dr. Nick Bennett is the Co-Director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.  He says he’s seen the impact of the overuse of antibiotics, in his office.

“There have certainly been cases when I've been forced to admit a child to the hospital for no reason other than I couldn't use the drug I wanted because of drug resistance," Bennett said.

Bennett says because of antibiotic use, drug-resistant bacteria form in animals and can be passed on to humans who eat their meat. He says those drug-resistant bacterial infections are causing 2 million Americans to get sick every year and 23,000 deaths.  Bennett and the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group want legislation to restrict the use of antibiotics in animals.

Dr. Richard Carnevale is with theAnimal Health Institute, which represents farmers, ranchers, and feed producers. He says it's already being done.

“I mean, they’re asking for controls on antibiotics, and FDA and the industry is in the process of putting more restrictions on these products,” Carnevale said.

Carnavale says most drug-resistant infections aren’t caused by animal antibiotics. He points to a CDC reportthat said 16 of the infections that have been resistant to drugs come from humans, compared to two from animals. He says the U.S. department of agriculture has strict processing standards to prevent these two infections from entering into the food supply. The Food and Drug Administration has stopped allowing over-the-counter sales of antibiotics for food animals, and are now requiring a veterinarian's prescription.

“They’re just a tool in the battle to keep animals healthy and to keep the food supply safe,” said Carnevale.

Bennett says cutting antibiotic use in food animals is possible.

"Case in point is the Netherlands," said Bennett. "They've been able to almost eliminate antibiotics from livestock and certainly from feed in livestock. And as a result they have one of the lowest rates of antibiotic resistance in people in the world."

Bennett says recent steps by the FDA don't go far enough. He says it will take legislation to ensure the meat industry changes its practices.