As the battle wages on over the safety of feeding antibiotics to livestock for growth promotion, a new report reveals yet another source of unregulated antibiotics in American animal feed--spent ethanol grain.
The new report by advocacy group the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy suggests that a relatively new source of food for livestock may contain levels of penicillin, erythromycin and other antibiotics. Both of these are medically important drugs whose effectiveness in treating humans can be compromised by overuse in animal feed for non-sick animals.
When the Food and Drug Administration discovered the antibiotic residues in the grain in 2008, it started requiring ethanol/distiller grain producers to get approval for their presence as a food additive. But the IATP report claims that the antibiotic companies are skirting this rule by relying on their self affirmed GRAS status as approval enough. GRAS (generally recognized as safe) approval requires only that a company proves to itself that its product is safe. It can voluntarily report those findings to the FDA as well.
Monday the FDA acknowledged that feeding animals distillers grain with antibiotic residues "may contribute to the emergence of drug-resistant organisms that can potentially infect humans who eat food products derived from those animals. Given the significant increase in the use of distillers dried grains as a livestock feed ingredient, FDA has decided to explore possible options for increased regulatory oversight over the use of antimicrobials in the ethanol production process when the byproducts of this process are used for animal feed."
Last Friday Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY) sent a letter to the FDA asking what it would do to better regulate these residues and why it has not released more information about its 2008 findings of antibiotic residue in half of the spent grain tested.
Charles Staff of the Distillers Grain Technical Council took issue with the report, however, saying that it conflated concern over the use of antibiotics added directly to animal feed with the "far far lower levels" in distillers grain.
"We are talking about parts per billion that is potentially present," Staff said, adding that levels of antibiotics in distillers grain have dropped significantly since the 2008 FDA analysis. "We are talking about minuscule levels and you can see that in the later 2010 samples taken by the FDA. [Ethanol producers] have better control and the antibiotic companies have established technical service and people who go out out to the ethanol plants and monitor how they are using it."
As government programs have aggressively funded and promoted the proliferation of ethanol in the last decade, production of this grain byproduct (known as DGS) jumped by 1,264 percent, from 2.5 to 34.1 million metric tons per year from 2000 to 2010, according to the report.
Many ranchers and ethanol enthusiasts often point to its use as a selling point for the efficiency of ethanol production.
According to the IATP report "The beef industry uses 41 percent of all DGS, the dairy industry consumes 26 percent, 5 percent are fed to swine and 4 percent to poultry; 22 percent are exported for use by meat producers overseas.
"DGS have rapidly become a mainstay of the conventional livestock diet, replacing 914 million bushels of traditional corn feed in the 2010-11 production year."
Antibiotics are used in the production of ethanol to reduce the development of bacteria during the distilling process. But not all distillers use antibiotics, opting instead for antimicrobial methods that do not leave possible antibiotic residue in the grain.