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One Cow at a Time: Fighting Drug-Resistant Pathogens

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Legislation to regulate the use of antibiotics in animal feed has support from some, as concerns about drug resistant pathogens increase in the health care community.

Antibiotic-resistant super bacteria: It sounds like the makings of a science fiction plot. But it’s a real concern for some, and it’s the reason the livestock and drug industries are united in a fight on Capitol Hill against efforts to regulate the use of antibiotics in animal feed.

Cattle, hog and poultry producers use higher doses of antibiotics to treat animals when they are sick and when they might be under stress — perhaps from being transported or being weaned — because stress can make them susceptible to infections. Low doses of the drugs are used to accelerate animals’ weight gains for market. For an undetermined reason, animals seem to able to make more efficient use of nutrients with the antibiotics in their systems.

The issue of when and how often antibiotics should be used — in people as well as in animals — has risen in prominence in the health care community. The concern is that widespread use of antibiotics to treat human illnesses has helped create pathogens immune to those drugs. Going a step further, health officials and some lawmakers worry that eating beef, pork or poultry that comes from animals that were fed antibiotics will add to that potential problem.

The livestock industry, along with farm state lawmakers and pharmaceutical companies, have fought legislation for several Congresses, arguing there is no definitive evidence that antibiotic use in food animals has contributed to the creation of resistant disease-causing bacteria.

A House bill, sponsored by New York Democrat Louise M. Slaughter, would require the Food and Drug Administration to deny approval for new drugs for food animals if they contain antibiotics or other drugs used to treat humans and if a drug company cannot prove that it is unlikely to lead to resistance in pathogens. The bill (HR 965) has 92 co-sponsors but has not been given a hearing or a committee or floor vote. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has a companion bill (S 1211) with seven co-sponsors.

“When we go to the grocery store to pick up dinner, we should be able to buy our food without the worry that eating it will expose our family to potentially deadly bacteria that will no longer respond to our medical treatments,” Slaughter said in a 2011 floor speech. “Unless we act now, we will unwittingly be permitting animals to serve as incubators for resistant bacteria.”

Slaughter, who has been fighting for such legislation for years, is getting support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Designating this week as “Get Smart on Antibiotics Week,” the CDC issued a warning that once a drug is ineffective, physicians have a limited number of alternatives they can use.

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