M-R-S-A Spells an End to Livestock Antibiotics

US - The increasing incidence of a scary antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection and new international evidence tying it to livestock provide two more good reasons why the United States needs to apply the brakes to routine use of antibiotics in animal feed
calendar icon 13 December 2007
clock icon 3 minute read

Legislation is pending in Congress that would require livestock producers to phase out the use in feed of antibiotics that are also important in human medicine. More than 350 health and agriculture groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have endorsed the legislation. It should be passed.

And while they're at it, the Senate and House also should require federal regulators to develop a system to start tracking the incidence of the deadly, antibiotic-resistant staph infection methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA, wherever it turns up. It has infected sick people in hospitals and nursing homes for a number of years but is now turning up in otherwise healthy individuals with deadly results. A recent federal study said MRSA has killed 18,650 people in the U.S. and seriously sickened tens of thousands of others.

Last month, Canadian researchers found two strains of the super bug in pigs and pig farmers in Ontario, the first time MRSA has been reported in animals in North America. The scientists involved were quick to point out that it's still safe to eat Canadian pork products since cooking typically kills the bacteria. But the finding does suggest that pig farms could be the source of the staph infections.

Meanwhile, a study of infectious disease in the Netherlands has linked a new strain of MRSA to more than 20% of all human MRSA infections in that country, many of them in pig or cattle farmers. MRSA was once found only in pigs in the Netherlands.

Just to be clear, researchers have not yet proved that indiscriminate use of antibiotics caused the MRSA in Canadian pigs. But since pig farmers in both Canada and the U.S. have routinely used antibiotics in feed for healthy animals to promote growth and to prevent disease, there is reason to be concerned. Antibiotics should be reserved for animals that are sick or that may be at greater risk. The legislation in Congress would not ban the use of antibiotics in those cases.

A number of livestock producers in the U.S. have seen the light and begun cutting back heavily on antibiotics. In July, Tyson Foods, to its credit, announced it would no longer use antibiotics to raise chickens sold as fresh in stores.

It's time for Congress to make this federal policy and to require federal regulators and health officials to start tracking MRSA.

Further Reading

- Go to our report on MRSA in breeding pigs by clicking here.
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