Antibiotics used heavily in livestock, group finds

Scientists say usage is 40% higher than farm, drug industry estimates


Antibiotics are being used far more heavily in pigs, cows and chickens than has been revealed by the drug and livestock industries, a public interest group is expected to announce today, giving as evidence its calculations of the use of the drugs on farms.

Healthy farm animals are routinely fed antibiotics to promote growth and prevent infections. The issue is of concern because that practice can breed strains of drug-resistant bacteria, which can infect people who eat meat from the animals or come in contact with food or water contaminated by the animals' droppings.

The estimates of antibiotic use appear in a 109-page report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group based in Cambridge, Mass., that advocates less use of the drugs in agriculture.

A trade group representing drug makers has disputed the findings, which are 40 percent higher than industry estimates.

Government scientists said that regardless of who is right, the conflicting figures highlight a serious problem: the lack of reliable information about the amounts and types of antibiotics used in livestock in different parts of the country. Researchers said that information is essential to track the emergence of resistant bacteria and determine whether it correlates with patterns of antibiotic use, which could then be changed.

Dr. David M. Bell, the antimicrobial resistance coordinator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he had not seen the report and could not comment on the methods it used.

"But it is an interesting report that challenges long-standing estimates and points out the need to collect better data on antibiotic use," Bell said. "There is widespread agreement that we lack reliable data on antibiotic use patterns."

The data is lacking, Bell said, because "in agriculture, industry has been reluctant to provide it, saying the information is proprietary."

Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the Food and Drug Administration, said: "We have not put a lot of confidence in any of the numbers we've seen to date, because we have no way of confirming them."

Sundlof said the drug agency is formulating regulations that would require companies making antibiotics for animals to provide regular reports on production and use of the drugs.

According to the report, American livestock producers use about 24.6 million pounds of antibiotics a year for "nontherapeutic" purposes, meaning growth promotion and disease prevention, as opposed to treatment. The nontherapeutic uses include about 10.3 million pounds in hogs, 10.5 million pounds in poultry and 3.7 million pounds in cattle.

By contrast, 3 million pounds of antibiotics a year are used to treat disease in people, the report said.

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