Antimicrobials in Livestock Debated

US - A consumer group appears to be pressing for any antimicrobial (including anti-parasitics) used in rearing to be listed on product labels because, it is alleged, their definition under the law is 'murky'.
calendar icon 15 June 2009
clock icon 7 minute read

Conventional cattle ranchers and pig and chicken farmers routinely feed their animals a steady diet of antibiotics to prevent illness and help them grow fatter faster, according to an article in San Francisco Chronicle. But as consumers become more obsessed with what they eat, including an insatiable hunger for meat and chicken raised naturally, without drugs, more producers are promoting their products as antibiotic-free.

Even producers who have eliminated antibiotics may be using other bacteria-killing compounds in the antimicrobial family, which have a murky definition under the law. Although not all antimicrobials are defined as antibiotics by the Food and Drug Administration, their use opens up a minefield of issues.

Among them:

  • Antimicrobials are not listed on labels
  • They work the same way as antibiotics, and
  • Many people consider them to be harmful to the environment.

"The only way to know if a producer is using antimicrobials is to call the manufacturer and ask them," said Urvashi Rangan, a scientist for the non-profit Consumers Union.

"A manufacturer doesn't have to list it on the label even if they're making an antibiotic-free claim. And as far as we're concerned, if you're using a drug to kill a parasite or a micro-organism and you're making a 'no antibiotics' claim, you're being misleading."

Some antibiotics when overused can breed resistant bacteria in livestock, in turn threatening the future success of these drugs in humans. But many farmers and ranchers argue that other antimicrobials, specifically anti-parasite medications, are harmless to people.

While scientists debate the pros and cons of using any bacteria-killing drug in food animals, most agree that the only difference between antibiotics and anti-microbials is purely one of semantics.

According to the FDA, an antimicrobial is an umbrella for microbe-killing products that include antibiotics. Antibiotics are produced from living micro-organisms such as fungi, while anti-microbials also include synthetic products.

Calls for transparency

"Consumers shouldn't need a degree in zoology to read labels," Charles Hansen, the executive director of the Truthful Labeling Coalition, an organization representing the natural chicken industry told San Francisco Chronicle. The group spearheaded a successful lawsuit against Tyson Foods for advertising that its poultry was raised without antibiotics, despite the fact that the company was injecting its chickens with ionophores before they hatched. Ionophores are a type of antimicrobial that combats intestinal infections and promotes growth, but is not known to impact antibiotic resistance in humans. In the end, Tyson was ordered to stop its advertising claims.

"If you're going to put something on a label, it should require a high degree of transparency," Hansen added.

Otherwise, said Marion Nestle, professor of food studies and public health at New York University and author of 'What to Eat', it creates the 'dread and outrage factor'. Although there might not be enough evidence to say whether these drugs could be harmful to humans, consumers have a right to know what's going into their food, she said.

Consumers Union's Rangan is especially concerned about the effect anti-microbials have on the environment.

"These things are excreted from the animals, get into the ground and the water and become pollutants," she said.

Supporting antimicrobials

Michael Apley, a clinical pharmacologist, veterinarian and associate professor at Kansas State University, believes that using any kind of antimicrobial and then calling the product antibiotic-free is 'disingenuous', although he is in favor of using certain anti-microbials in food animals.

"The ones they are using do so much good," he said. "And there is no data to show a negative effect on humans. They really are a sound practice for preventing stress on animals."

Michael Payne, also a veterinarian and pharmacologist who teaches at UC Davis, agrees.

"The judicious and responsible use of anti-microbials as preventive medicine may not only guard against livestock illness, it may actually prevent the necessity of treating animals with larger amounts of more powerful antibiotics," he said.

"Our experience in veterinary medicine is that the use of measured, extremely small amounts of these compounds actually lowers mortality rates and reduces pain and suffering of livestock and poultry."

Good animal husbandry

It's just good animal husbandry, argues Brian Kenny of Hearst Ranch (owned by the same company that owns The Chronicle), and John Tarpoff of Niman Ranch. The two California producers advertise their beef as antibiotic-free, but use anti-parasite drugs. Hearst uses Dectamax and Niman Deccox and Corid to rid their cattle of tiny parasites they pick up on the range, according to San Francisco Chronicle.

Although Mr Kenny and Mr Tarpoff said they occasionally treat sick animals with antibiotics because "it's the humane thing to do," they will not sell those cattle under their label. They do, however, sell the livestock that has been treated with other antimicrobials.

Mr Tarpoff said the medications are not absorbed into the steer's system and that the ranch does not slaughter its animals until two to four months after treatment.

Mr Kenny says that to not use them is untenable on his scale of ranching – between 2,500 and 3,000 head of cattle on two Central Coast ranches 10 times the size of Manhattan.

"We operate under the purview of the FDA and the USDA, and both those agencies say these are not antibiotics," Mr Kenny said. "If consumers want meat that hasn't been treated with anything, they're going to go hungry.

"If you're raising five head of cattle, you can do it," Mr Kenny continued. "If you want to eat something that's never been treated for illness, that's what hunting is for."

But organic meat and poultry companies such as Humboldt County's Eel River Organic Beef and Petaluma Poultry are forbidden by the USDA's certified organic programme from using anti-parasitic drugs as well as antibiotics. The National Organic Program allows only the anti-parasitic, ivermectin, to be used in the emergency treatment of dairy and breeder stock when organic remedies fail to prevent infestation, according to the USDA.

However, even some nonorganic certified producers, such as Coleman Natural, based in Colorado, and Soul Food Farm in Vacaville, do not use antimicrobials, according to company officials.

But if they needed to use them to treat a sick animal, Rangan of Consumers Union said she would not have a problem with that.

"Just tell us about it."

At a glance

San Francisco Chronicle adds the following definitions:

Anti-microbial: According to the Food and Drug Administration, an anti-microbial is an umbrella for microbe-killing products that include antibiotics. Antibiotics are produced from living micro-organisms such as fungi, while anti-microbials also include synthetic products.

Ionophore: A compound usually synthesised by micro-organisms that disrupts the cell membrane function of other micro-organisms. Different ionophore antibiotic formulations can be used to treat or prevent coccidiosis, a parasitic disease in an animal's intestinal tract, or to shift percentages of microbial populations in an animal's stomach for growth promotion. The FDA has classified these as antibiotics.

Anti-microbial versus antibiotic: According to Michael Payne, of University of California Davis: "The way the terms anti-microbial and antibiotic are applied is neither consistent nor particularly scientific. This has led to confusion and, in the case of Tyson's poultry labels, even regulatory action."

Organic certification: For meat to be certified organic by the US Dept. of Agriculture, no anti-parasite drugs can be used in any animal that will be slaughtered for food. The National Organic Program does allow for the use of only one, Ivermectin, but only in dairy and breeder animals when other treatments fail.

By the numbers: The Union of Concerned Scientists calculated in 2001 that the US farm industry used 24.6 million pounds of anti-microbials that year.

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