By editorial board • 

Let's take antibiotics out of livestock feed

Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming, toiling at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, discovered the infection-fighting properties of the penicillium mold in a hallelujah moment heralded on Sept. 28, 1928.

His discovery led to development of the world’s first antibiotic, penicillin, whose lifesaving properties earned it “miracle drug” labeling. It came into widespread use in 1941, just as World War II was creating a huge new demand, and spawned a family of offshoots serving to revolutionize medicine.

Less than 10 years later, an American biologist, working for the agricultural and pharmaceutical giant American Cyanamid, discovered the drug family’s growth-promoting auxiliary properties. Successful Farming magazine hailed the breakthrough this way in March 1951: “Antibiotics Now Proved in Hog and Poultry Ratios; They’re the Biggest Feeding News in 40 Years!”

By 1977, the federal Food and Drug Administration concluded wholesale introduction of antibiotics into beef, pork and poultry feed was proving detrimental to human health, primarily by incubating new strains of drug-resistant bacteria. And it began entertaining a ban on the practice.

Today, 80 percent of all antibiotics, some 30 million pounds a year, are being used to stimulate growth in livestock rather than fight disease in humans. But despite the passage of almost three decades, the FDA is still dithering.

It took its first tentative step late last year, asking the American livestock industry to voluntarily limit non-medicinal use of antibiotics. In another “bold” step, it mailed letters to some of the larger producers, seeking additional information.

The European Union and Scandinavia have been much more forceful, with Sweden leading the way by banning the practice outright nearly 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, the number and virulence of resistant strains of bacteria have been growing exponentially, to the point where hospitals have become virtual breeding grounds for dangerous staph infections. Such infections are now blamed for up to 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths a year, and doctors are running out of weapons to fight them.

Fortunately, a sea change in public opinion, fueled by social media, has led such food industry giants as Walmart and McDonald’s to swear off livestock artificially fattened with force-fed antibiotics. If you lose customers like these, you’ve lost the battle for all practical purposes.

But producers are taking note only fitfully and grudgingly. With the FDA and drug industry playing enabling roles, they seem intent on mounting rear-guard resistance.

In Oregon, limits are playing out in the form of Senate Bill 920, which would allow producers to treat sick animals with antibiotics, but not to feed antibiotics to healthy animals simply to fatten them for market.

To no one’s surprise, the farm lobby, led by the Oregon Farm Bureau, is fighting the legislation. It fears a ban would put the state’s producers at a competitive disadvantage.

It seems to us a ban might well put Oregon producers at a competitive advantage instead, catching the cusp of a revolution in the way beef, pork and chicken reach restaurant and kitchen tables. But that consideration pales in comparison to the overriding importance of helping protect the American public from antibiotic-resistant disease.

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