ANNAPOLIS – As the federal government considers banning an antibiotic used in animal feed, one Maryland lawmaker wants to collect data on what’s being mixed into feed and in what quantities.
At issue is the effect agricultural use of growth-promoting antibiotics has on the increasing resistance of infectious bacteria to drugs such as penicillin.
Infections from bacteria such as pneumococcus and gonorrhea used to be easily treatable with penicillin. Now, in many cases, they require stronger and more expensive treatments. Penicillin and amoxicillin are as much as $80 less expensive than the drugs replacing them.
“We’re having to run harder to stay in place,” said bill sponsor Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore, who is also a physician. “For years, penicillin has worked great, but in the last 10 to 12 years we’ve had to go through three to four generations of drugs.”
No conclusive evidence exists on whether the use of antibiotics in agriculture for growth promotion purposes, particularly in chicken feed, has any effect on bacteria resistance.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is working with scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine to find out if chicken waste is carrying antibiotics and resistant strains of the bacteria.
Maryland ranks eighth in the nation in broiler chicken production, producing 1.4 billion pounds. Most of the chickens are raised on the Eastern Shore.
Chicken waste often is used as fertilizer on farms, which means the antibiotics and the accompanying resistant bacteria could be released into the groundwater supply. This would be of special concern on the Eastern Shore where much of the water supply comes from wells.
Scientists are concerned not only about increase in drug expenses, but that some infections may become untreatable altogether.
“Clearly the worry is that people are going to die,” said Ellen Silbergeld, a researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “If you can’t treat these infections, such as salmonella, you will die.”
There are conflicting numbers on what percentage of the nation’s antibiotics are used for agriculture – ranging from the 40 percent figure released by the National Academy of Sciences to a 70 percent figure produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 10.5 million pounds of drugs are used annually for poultry alone.
However, because of the uncertainty regarding this data, scientists are even less sure what effects these antibiotics might have on bacterial resistance. Poultry companies are reluctant to divulge such information because they feel their formulas are trade secrets, said University of Maryland School of Medicine scientist, Glenn Morris.
“Companies don’t want other companies to know what is going into their chicken feed to make their chickens grow better,” Morris said
Officials in the poultry industry said any investigation of antibiotic use in agriculture should also be extended to human use.
“If there is any resistance to tetracycline and penicillin, humans should look in the mirror,” said Dick Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council. “There’s a lack of data on the animal side and there’s an even greater lack on the human side.”
The use of growth-promoting drugs amounts to only a couple grams per ton of feed, according to the Delmarva Poultry Association, however, no Maryland agency reports and verifies such figures, making the issue difficult to study.
“It’s a complex issue,” Morris said. “No one knows how much antibiotics these companies are using.”