Industry Says Food Safety Will Cost Consumers

DELAWARE, US - As the Obama administration steps up push to overhaul the nation's food safety system, poultry producers in Delaware could face new regulations and a smaller medicine chest as a result of proposals making their way through Congress.
calendar icon 27 July 2009
clock icon 5 minute read

One bill – the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 – would boost the Food and Drug Administration's powers, potentially giving the agency oversight of on-farm production, according to The News Journal.

Another proposal calls for limiting certain uses of antibiotics in farm animals, addressing longstanding concerns that their overuse in livestock contributes to the development of drug-resistant bacteria.

The measures reflect the new attitude in Washington, as the pendulum swings toward more regulation in a number of industries. Several recent foodborne disease outbreaks have helped spur efforts to overhaul the nation's food safety system.

Farm interests in Delaware and elsewhere worry that these measures will drive up costs and do little to improve food safety. "Whatever comes down the pike, we will live with it," said Delmar poultry farmer, Sam Slabaugh. "Ultimately, the consumer's going to pay."

The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act has been considered in previous years, but this year it has the Obama administration's support. The bill seeks to end the practice of feeding antibiotics to healthy livestock to promote growth.

In 2005, the non-profit Environmental Defense claimed that Delaware and Sussex County – the top broiler chicken-producing county in the country – led the nation in per-acre use of antibiotic feed additives, although industry groups questioned the study's methodology. The government does not collect data on antibiotic use in farm animals, so most studies of the topic rely on estimates.

The concern among some scientists and interest groups is that sustained, low doses of antibiotics also used to treat humans – like penicillin or erythromycin – help create bacteria that are resistant to the drugs. Those bacteria can then infect farm workers, be carried on meat or poultry or contaminate water and soil.

It is a disputed question what role agriculture plays in antibiotic resistance, reports The News Journal. Antibiotics are used heavily in humans, too, which undoubtedly contributes to the problem.

But the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimates that 70 per cent of the antibiotics used in the United States are fed to poultry, swine and cattle for purposes other than treating sick animals.

While the medical community has taken steps to curb its use of antibiotics, the agriculture industry is "in denial" about the problem, said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at UCS.

"There's absolutely no doubt that they can cut back their antibiotic use dramatically without harming their bottom line," Ms Mellon said.

The News Journal says that the poultry industry argues that there is no evidence to connect the use of antibiotics in animal production with the rise of drug-resistant bacteria.

Elizabeth Krushinskie, director of quality assurance and food safety for Millsboro-based Mountaire Farms, said the majority of antibiotic treatments given to chickens are not used in humans. When antibiotics are used, they are administered "judiciously" and according to strict FDA regulations, she said.

Based in Salisbury, Maryland, Perdue Farms has a policy against using antibiotics for growth promotion in its chickens, although the company thinks they are a "valuable animal health tool" when used according to veterinary guidelines, said Perdue spokeswoman Julie DeYoung.

Mr Slabaugh, who raises about 90,000 chickens for Perdue at his Delmar farm, said he had to change his production methods when Perdue stopped using antibiotics in its feed about six years ago. The additives made his chickens "thrifty and hardier," he said.

Without the antibiotics, "they're much more sensitive and receptive to challenges," he added.

The bill in Congress would ban the agricultural use of some antibiotics used in humans and restrict the use of other antibiotics. A House panel heard testimony on the measure earlier this month, including support from an FDA deputy commissioner.

Meanwhile, the broader food safety bill has sparked opposition from a wide range of farm groups. As originally written, the bill would have given the FDA oversight of farms – including livestock facilities, currently the domain of the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

That is a prospect that unnerves producers, who do not think the FDA has the knowledge to regulate farms. Bill Roenigk, vice president and chief economist for trade group National Chicken Council, told The News Journal last week that the bill had been adjusted to make clear that the USDA would retain jurisdiction in the areas it already regulates.

Regardless, the legislation raises fears that the FDA could find a "back door" to regulating livestock production at farms with both crops and animals, Mr Roenigk said.

"It's a bill that needs a lot more thought put into it and a lot more work done on it," he said.

Ms Krushinskie, who testified to a House panel in April on poultry industry regulations, said the federal proposals represent the "increasing regulatory stranglehold" that the government is taking on agriculture. The result, she said, will be more imports of food – and less food security for the US.

"People have lost sight of the fact that we have the absolute safest food system in the world," she said.

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