Legislation introduced in Congress March 17 potentially jeopardizes the health of pigs and people, adds to producer production costs and the price consumers pay for pork, charges the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

A bill sponsored by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), proposes to ban the use in livestock of antibiotics used to prevent or control diseases.

“This is irresponsible legislation,” says NPPC President Don Butler. “We are committed to maintaining the well-being of our animals, and we need access to a range of animal health products to keep our pigs healthy, and, in turn, produce safe food products. This bill will prevent that, and we’ll see more pigs die and higher production costs, and that means consumers will pay more for pork.”

The bill is aimed at stopping the use of antibiotics for growth promotion to address the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

But a survey in 2000 of human health experts found that 96% of antibiotic resistance in humans is due to human use of antibiotics.

Randall Singer, DVM, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota, says the low-dose, routine use of antibiotics might actually do a better job of preserving the efficacy of antimicrobials and preventing the development of antibiotic resistance. “When you use a therapeutic, high-level dose, you wipe out susceptible populations and all that is left is the resistant population.”

Rather than imposing a ban on the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, a better approach would be to look at the risks and benefits of each type of antibiotic used, he says.

“What we might see is that certain uses, including the low-dose uses, might have an actual net benefit or less of a risk to health than perhaps treating sick animals with a high dose of an antibiotic,” Singer says.

When Denmark banned the use of some antibiotics in 1999, the result was an increase in piglet deaths and in the amount of antibiotics used to treat swine diseases.

“Pork producers, under the direction of a veterinarian, have a moral obligation to use antibiotics responsibly to protect human health and provide safe food,” points out Jennifer Greiner, DVM, NPPC director of science and technology. “Producers also have an ethical obligation to maintain the health of their pigs, and antibiotics are an important tool to help us do that.”

The Pork Quality Assurance Plus and the Take Care: Use Antibiotics Responsibly programs developed by the pork industry provide guidelines on proper use of antibiotics to protect animal and public health and animal well-being.

And whether there is harm to either species from the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture should be left up to the Food and Drug Administration which approves such products – and not to legislation, Singer stresses.