Public health forum focuses on antibiotics in agriculture 

On Tuesday Jan. 19 a public health forum was held at the IUPUI campus to discuss the use of antibiotics in agriculture. A panel of activists and physicians expressed concern over the alarming volume of antibiotics used in meat production operations: approximately 70 percent of antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used in animals for non-therapeutic purposes.

The term non-therapeutic refers to instances in which antibiotics are fed to livestock in low doses to promote growth and expedite weight gain. Antibiotics may also be used preventatively, before an animal is sick, this type of usage is also non-therapeutic.

Many panelists spoke of the danger inherent in giving large quantities of antibiotics to animals, producing drug resistant germs. These germs are often spread to people. Dr. Stephen Jay, a practicing physician and professor of medicine and public health at IU, said "We're in the midst of a pandemic of drug resistant germs - 25 years ago high level experts began to sound the alarm."

With the spread in antibiotic resistant germs like MRSA (Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus), infections become more difficult and costly to treat.

In March of last year, a bill heard in the House proposed that new animal antimicrobial drugs not be approved unless it was established they would not harm human health; further, the bill would revoke the approval for usage of non-therapeutic antibiotics within two years if safety requirements were not met.

Robert Martin, a senior officer at Pew Environment Group, spoke at the IUPUI public health forum. Martin also testified before the House about the legislation described above because of his experience as executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Martin told the House that the current system of producing food animals is unsustainable, presenting a risk to public health that damages the environment and the animals being raised.

The commission Martin sat on compiled hundreds of independent academic studies in determining that the indiscriminate use of antibiotics should be quelled. One study estimates that drug resistant infections increase health care costs by 4-5 billion dollars annually.

A 2005 Tufts University study put the number closer to 50 billion dollars.

Denmark, Sweden and the European Union have all banned the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics.

At the IUPUI event, many members of the agricultural community were present to voice their opinion on the subject. According to Patricia Wakenell, a professor at Purdue University and poultry veterinarian, the American Veterinary Medical Association disputes the findings of the Pew commission. They claim that antibiotic resistance is far more complicated and controlled by many more factors than animal use.

Wakenell claims that when the FDA bans an antibiotic they would not do it only for non-therapeutic use, "When the FDA bans an antibiotic, they do it in total, but there is such a gray area of what is therapeutic and what is non-therapeutic that it makes the situation very difficult."

In response to Wakenell's remarks, Martin said that the FDA is looking at definitional restriction of antibiotics, meaning they would try to distinguish between therapeutic and non-therapeutic use.

Dr. Stephen Jay added "When animals get disease they need to be treated, but treated appropriately."

Wakenell went on to say that it is important to put a face to the people trying to protect their livelihoods, "It's easy to badmouth a company like Tyson, or Smithfield Foods, the farmers who produce for the big companies are people, too."

The Public health forum was sponsored by the Hoosier Environmental Council, Indiana University Department of Public Health, Indiana CAFO Watch, Indiana Public Health Association and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

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