To feed or not to feed: Antibiotics in livestock as growth promoters. Good idea?

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Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 1.31.51 PMA long-running controversy has reared its head again whether or not antibiotics should be added to animal feed to promote the growth of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry.

This time, the FDA is considering whether to ban this practice, although they are only talking about voluntary compliance at this time.

As would be expected, opinions vary widely, with farmers on one side and various medical and non-governmental organizations, and individuals on the other.

The practice began about 70 years ago, when farmers discovered that addition of these drugs to animals diets made them grow faster presumably by diminishing the amount of bacteria in the intestinal tract of the animals. However, this hypothesis is one of several explanations for the effect, and the answer remains elusive.

This is clearly seen in a report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH): Currently, several mechanisms of action are attributed to antibiotics, but no clear understanding has been achieved.

The overriding question is, of course, whether this practice has an impact on human health by encouraging antibiotic resistance.

ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom weighs in: The use of any antimicrobial drug will, by definition, generate resistant organisms. The question becomes how much we are speeding up the clock, which is constantly ticking. And every tick makes existing antibiotics many of which now barely work lose their remaining effectiveness.

There is no absolute consensus about whether this is strictly accurate, but one example from several months ago is irrefutable.

An outbreak of multidrug resistant salmonella from contaminated chickens that were produced by Foster Farms at three facilities in California sickened hundreds of people, and resulted in at least 40 hospitalizations.

Dr. Bloom continues, If you need an example of how antibiotic resistance in animals affects human health this is as clear as it gets. Not only did the people who ate the chicken get sick, but they were infected with resistant salmonella, meaning that if they needed to be treated with antibiotics for the infection many wouldn't work.

Another disturbing aspect of this is the types of antibiotics that are being used are also used to promote growth. If something like penicillin (which is essentially useless now due to resistance) was used, the impact on human health would probably be negligible.

But, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nine different classes of antibiotics, many of which are still used in humans, are used as growth promoters. Is this a problem? Dr. Bloom comments, Logically it is difficult to see how it could not be. And given the dearth of new antibiotics in the pipeline I think it is pure insanity to be using antibiotics that are already starting to fail in humans for this purpose.

If this strikes you as a bad idea, ACSH advisor Dr. David Shlaes, an infectious disease specialist, simply says the FDA is just still an ostrich.

We are curious to know whether the ostrich was fed with antibiotics.