At least 23,000 Americans die every year from antibiotic-resistant infections, some of which may come from exposure to livestock antibiotics that end up in food.
To prevent these deaths, researchers and lawmakers are looking for ways to keep those antibiotics from getting into food in the first place.
The St. Paul City Council passed a resolution this month supporting federal legislation that would ban unnecessary antibiotics — those that aren’t directly used for treating sick animals.
The resolution supports barring “non-therapeutic use” of antibiotics, or when farms administer small amounts of antibiotics to entire herds every day to prevent the animals from getting sick.
Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria that can cause illness evolve to withstand the medication used to eliminate them. With increased use of antibiotics, bacteria can develop resistance more rapidly and the drugs become less effective.
“We’re hoping that St. Paul is one of many cities that speaks out about it and that will influence higher levels of government,” said St. Paul City Councilman and resolution co-author Dave Thune.
The impact on farmers
When the sheep on University of Minnesota animal science junior Jaclyn Dingels’ hobby farm get sick, she administers antibiotics to make them better, as she has done for 14 years.
Dingels, a member of the University’s Agricultural Education Club, said she only uses antibiotics when an animal is sick and doesn’t administer them non-therapeutically.
Across the United States, farmers use more than 29 million pounds of antibiotics for livestock annually, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
While Thune said he doesn’t know of any specific local examples of antibiotic overuse, he said it is a national concern and more people should be aware of the issue.
Assistant organic dairy management professor Bradley Heins works on the University’s Morris campus with two dairy herds — one that doesn’t get antibiotics and one that does.
Heins said he hasn’t done specific research on antibiotics comparing the two herds, so he couldn’t draw comparisons on any differences in their health. When cows in the herd that does not receive antibiotics get sick, he said, they administer antibiotics directly. They almost never put antibiotics in feed, he said, which could expose other cows to the drugs.
“I think most farmers are using the antibiotics according to their label and that most farms want to have a good wholesome product, so they watch it very closely to see if they are giving it correctly,” Heins said.
The FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture require farmers to work closely with a veterinarian when giving antibiotics to their livestock. The FDA also sets caps on the amounts of antibiotics that can be present in the edible tissues of livestock and will send warnings to farms that exceed those limits.
Minnesota Pork Producers Association Executive Director David Preisler said the farms he works with sometimes use antibiotics in feed during a stressful period in an animal’s life, like weaning or moving to a different farm, in order to keep it from getting sick. But he said they heavily monitor animals afterward and coordinate doses with a veterinarian.
Preisler said he’s more concerned about how humans are affected by antibiotics they take directly, rather than those they get through food.
Thune said he doesn’t worry as much about antibiotics that humans take directly, because insurers and clinicians are more aware of their adverse health effects. He said food consumers, on the other hand, may not be as informed.
Dingels said she supports limitations on antibiotic use, but extreme restrictions aren’t necessary.
“As a farmer myself, it is my whole goal to raise a safe and healthy product for consumers, and I think that is unanimous with all farmers across the state and the country,” she said. “That’s why we what we do and get up every day at 6 a.m. to feed the sheep. It’s all so that we can help feed our community.”