Rep. Murphy splits with GOP on antibiotic use in agriculture

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) wants to curb the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, the first House Republican to take that stance. He has so far stopped short of endorsing a Democratic bill that would mandate such restrictions, however.

"For decades, doctors have known that the widespread use of antibiotics speeds the development of bacterial mutation and antimicrobial resistance," Murphy said Wednesday at an Energy and Commerce Health panel hearing on antibiotic use in agriculture, the third in a series of hearings on antibiotic resistance.

Murphy, a former child psychologist with a strong interest in healthcare issues, pointed to the medical community's call for a "significant reduction" in the amount of antibiotics used in animal agriculture. But the congressman's district is also home to many rural farmers and pharmaceutical groups such as GlaxoSmithKline and Bayer, which oppose strict restrictions.

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Those competing interests leave in question whether Murphy will become the first Republican to endorse the "Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act" introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) in March 2009. The bill would phase out the non-therapeutic use of specific classes of antibiotics in food-producing animals, while permitting their continued therapeutic use in sick animals. It has 113 co-sponsors.

"The vast majority of evidence in the last three decades," Murphy said at the hearing, "points to a linkage between routine, low-level antibiotic use in food animals and the transfer of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to people, often through the food supply."

Murphy said 70 percent of all healthcare-associated infections in the U.S. are resistant to at least one antibiotic, at a cost of $50 billion a year. Murphy also pointed out that one antibiotic-resistant infection – MRSA – kills more people in the U.S. every year than HIV/AIDS.

"What would happen," he asked, "if it would finally become resistant to the few remaining effective antibiotics?"

The Slaughter bill got a boost last month when the Food and Drug Administration released draft guidance suggesting that excessive use of antibiotics to grow bigger poultry and livestock "poses a serious public health threat." The guidance calls for using antibiotics in food-producing animals only when needed to assure the animals' health and phasing in veterinary oversight or consultation in the use of these drugs; the guidance is voluntary but could lead to regulations down the line.

At the same time, some opponents of the bill argue that Congress shouldn't act while FDA is still reviewing the evidence.

The food industry meanwhile is pushing back against studies that suggest 70 percent of antibiotics in the United States are used to promote animal growth and compensate for overcrowding conditions on factory farms. They say tough restrictions could make food more expensive and less safe.