Experts urge U.S. to bar drugs in animal feed

Panel would aid waste disposal, halt spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria

April 30, 2008|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN REPORTER

A panel of experts, assembled in part by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is recommending that the United States ban the routine use of antibiotics in farm animal feed.

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production also proposes better tracking of diseases among farm animals, to help prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to humans.

"We've got too many animals too close together producing too much waste without any realistic way of handling the waste," said John Carlin, a farmer and former Kansas governor who chairs the commission.

The routine use of antibiotics in hogs and chickens in Pennsylvania, Maryland and elsewhere has prompted complaints from neighbors and researchers who suggest it can create drug-resistant supergerms. Feeding antibiotics to animals weakens the ability of the drugs to fight diseases in humans.

A 111-page report released yesterday by the Pew Commission suggested that meat processing companies should share the responsibility of disposing of animal waste so that it doesn't run off into waterways such as the Chesapeake Bay.

The panel suggests that the federal government use antitrust laws to break up giant agricultural conglomerates and allow family farms to have more bargaining power.

The 15-member committee, which included public health experts, veterinarians, ranchers and others, was put together by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the Pew Charitable Trusts, which funded the two-year research project.

Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, said he agrees with the idea of better disease tracking on farms. But he said many of the other recommendations would drive up the price of food in a time of global shortages.

"It's naive to think we can do away with antibiotics and modern livestock production systems and still feed the world," he said.

Joint responsibility for manure disposal has been resisted in the past by Maryland-based Perdue Farms and other large poultry companies, which have argued that waste is the responsibility of contract farmers.

Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said Perdue and other poultry companies already volunteer to help by picking up chicken litter from some farms and driving it to factories where it is turned into fertilizer.

Julie DeYoung, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said of joint responsibility for manure: "It's not necessary. It would affect the business model of poultry producers and grain farmers who utilize it as a valuable fertilizer resource, even more so today with high chemical fertilizer prices."

More than 270 million chickens a year on Maryland's Eastern Shore produce about a billion pounds of manure. Runoff from the manure is one of the biggest sources of Chesapeake Bay pollution.

The report says that confining animals in industrial-style buildings can contribute to food contamination. About 73,000 people a year across the United States are sickened by food-borne E. coli bacteria, and 60 people a year die, according to the report.

Confined animal feeding operations also release toxic dust and gases. Children living within three miles have significantly higher rates of asthma, the report says.

To protect neighbors, all levels of government should better regulate the location of these buildings and the handling of manure, the commission says. Pigs should no longer be kept in crates, and egg-laying hens should not be in cages, the panel says.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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