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Antibiotics report spurs debate


DELAWARE uses more antibiotic animal feed additives per square mile than any other state, and Maryland is not far behind, according to a report issued last week by a national environmental group.

The report by Environmental Defense claims that residents living near large chicken farms in the Delmarva region are at greater risk of exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Delaware, which has a large concentration of poultry farms in the southern region of the state, uses about 187,000 pounds of antibiotic additives per thousand square miles, according to the group, which identifies itself as a leading national nonprofit organization that seeks solutions to environmental problems.

It lists Maryland as fourth in the nation, using 44,467 pounds per thousand square miles.

The group claims that 23 states use 90 percent of the 26.5 million pounds of antibiotics estimated to be used in the United States as feed additives each year, seven times the amount used in human medicine nationwide.

'Greater risk'

"Studies suggest that people living in areas with intensive use of antibiotics as feed additives are at greater risk of contracting antibiotics-resistant infections," said Ellen Silbergeld, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said the report appeared to be "based on opinion rather than scientific fact."

"As a poultry farmer myself, my family and I have lived and worked on a poultry farm for 46 years," he said. "I see no real credence in the printed report."

Maryland ranks seventh in the nation for poultry production, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Poultry is the state's largest farm business, accounting for about 30 percent of approximately $1.5 billion in farm sales. The industry employs 15,000 people in the Delmarva Peninsula.

Riley said that Maryland's poultry industry relies on the production of a healthy and safe food product. "This is accomplished by the use and application of safe feed ingredients designed to produce a healthy poultry and animal product, which in turn provides a healthy and wholesome product for the consumer."

Riley said agriculture's success depends on food and environmental safety and consumers demand no less.

Farms in North Carolina and Iowa are each estimated to use 3 million pounds of antibiotics as food additives each year, according to the report. This is the same quantity of antibiotics estimated to be used each year in human medicine nationwide.

Richard L. Lobb, a spokesman with the National Chicken Council, discounted the report. "I think they are having fun with the numbers," he said.

He contends that the group's "original numbers date back to 1999 and they were guesswork, and the latest estimate is guesswork cubed."

He said studies done by the Animal Health Institute say that the use of antibiotics in farm animals has declined in recent years.

Estimate 'flawed'

According to Lobb, 24 million pounds of antibiotics was used in 1999. That dropped to 20.2 million pounds in 2003, the last year for which he had figures. "Their broad-brush estimate is flawed," Lobb said.

The Environmental Defense estimates are based on per-animal estimates of antibiotic feed additive use by the Union of Concerned Scientists for broiler chickens, hogs and beef cattle and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest livestock census report, the group said.

Lobb objected to concerns the report raised over the health of people who live near farms. "There is no proof that their health is at greater risk," he said.

Overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is widely regarded as contributing to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threatens human health, the group said.

Environmental Defense asserts that antibiotics are added to feed not to treat sick animals, but rather on the grounds that they might promote slightly faster growth or prevent disease that could result from the crowded conditions in which some animals are raised.

"Feeding antibiotics to animals is not only a major cause of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the human food supply, but also results in the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and in their waste," said report co-author Rebecca Goldburg.

Resistant bacteria

"Those bacteria can in turn colonize and infect farm workers, as well as contaminate water, air and soil," she said. "The more you use [antibiotics], the faster you lose them. That's because bacteria become resistant in response to being exposed to antibiotics.

"Antibiotic resistance is a serious and growing threat to human health, so it is just plain foolish to be feeding vast quantities of antibiotics to chickens, pigs and beef cattle."

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