UT report urges limited use of antibiotics in agriculture

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 12:12pm
Staff reports

As legislation to rein in the overuse of antibiotics in industrial agricultural operations remains stalled in a congressional committee, a new report from the University of Tennessee urges livestock producers to begin taking the mounting problem seriously.

Twin bills introduced last year in the House and Senate seek to limit the “nontherapeutic use of” seven classes of drugs commonly given to livestock animals — in some cases, to accelerate their growth or cover for potential disease outbreaks because of poor living conditions.

The report, issued by the university’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center and authored by its director, Daryll Ray, suggests that there is a definite connection between the overuse of antibiotics and the resistance of some strains of infection and disease to drugs. It cites the Mayo Clinic’s assertion that “a shortened course of antibiotics … often wipes out only the most vulnerable bacteria, while allowing relatively resistant bacteria to survive,” saying that the same effect occurs in animals raised for food.

Shelley Hearne, of the Pew Health Group, favors limiting antibiotic use in an agricultural context.

“That’s the whole point here; you need to reserve them for those times of need versus using them as a shortcut to quicken animals’ growth and to prevent disease they get because they’re living in unsanitary conditions,” she told the Tennessee News Service.

According to the Tennessee Farm Bureau, the state boasts some 79,000 farms that average 138 acres in size. Gross income from farms is estimated at more than $3.4 billion annually; in 2008, 21 percent of total farm revenue — or more than $580 million — came from cattle and calves, which are the largest single generator of farm income in the state. As well, poultry is the fastest-growing segment of Tennessee agriculture, up 142 percent over the last decade.