Rising antibiotic use on farms prompts renewed push for federal restrictions

Public health advocates are renewing their push for stronger restrictions on antibiotics in food production after a Pew Health Group analysis of federal data found that their use was up 6.7 percent in 2010.

The latest Food and Drug Administration survey, released late Friday, found that the overall amount of antibiotics used in food production was 13.9 million kilograms (30.6 million pounds) in 2010, according to Pew. That's up from 13.1 million kilograms (28.8 million pounds) in 2009.

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Excluding ionophores, which are used exclusively on animals, the increase was 8.6 percent - from 9.3 million kilograms in 2009 to 10.1 million kilograms in 2010.

Some health experts worry that the nation's widespread use of antibiotics on farms puts people at risk by increasing the number of drug-resistant bacteria and making antibiotics less effective. The food and drug industries say restricting their use would cause more animals to get sick, hurt agricultural profits and also create a risk for consumers.

"This report confirms what we already know: Industrial farms are using antibiotics on a massive scale that far exceeds what doctors are using to treat sick people," said Laura Rogers, project director for the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. "As a result, infections are becoming more difficult and expensive to treat. The time for the Administration to protect our health is long overdue."

According to Pew, farm use of antibiotics is increasing much faster than actual food production. The American Meat Institute, for example, says "total meat and poultry production in 2010 reached more than 92.1 billion pounds, up 1.2 billion pounds from 2009" - an increase of just 1.3 percent.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) has for several years been leading efforts in Congress to limit farmers from using seven classes of antibiotics critical for human health only to treat sick animals. Four senators -  Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) - introduced companion legislation in June. 

Correction: This post was updated Monday to reflect that Slaughter's bill would allow seven classes of antibiotics to be used only for the medical treatment of farm animals.