Oregon mulls law limiting antibiotic use on livestock
PORTLAND, Ore. — For decades, farmers have routinely fed antibiotics to livestock to fatten up the animals and protect them from illnesses amplified by confined conditions.
But critics say repeated use of antibiotics has made bacteria more resistant to the drugs, resulting in people developing antibiotic-resistant infections. As public pressure mounts nationally against antibiotics, Oregon legislators are debating whether to curtail their use in agriculture.
If the legislation passes, Oregon will be the first in the nation to mandate stricter rules on livestock antibiotics.
Scientists, doctors and public health officials are unequivocal about the need to stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Some farmers — including at industrial operations — have made the switch, and many food chains and restaurants offer antibiotic-free meat.
The federal government is pushing to phase out antibiotics used to improve animal growth. Proponents of Oregon’s bill say that’s inadequate, because the move still allows operators to administer the drugs to prevent illness — and many farmers give them to animals that are not sick.
But some farmers and veterinarians say the bill would essentially bar them from using antibiotics — a crucial tool in the treatment of large groups of animals — to prevent disease outbreaks.
Unlike in human medicine, on a farm it’s critical to treat the herd at the first sign of a bacterial infection, said Charles Meyer, a Grants Pass veterinarian and president of the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association.
“When symptoms tell us the disease process is going to start, it will go through that pen of cattle,” Meyer said. “The best way to stop it before it spreads like fire is by administering antibiotics” to the whole herd.
A bill limiting preventive use would result in more animals getting sick and dying, increased drug use and a rise in antibiotic resistance, Meyer said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause 23,000 human deaths and more than 2 million illnesses each year nationally. Doctors say resistant superbugs cause infections and make antibiotics ineffective in curing common diseases.
The overuse of antibiotics by patients, doctors and hospitals is partially to blame, experts say. But farms are considered a big part of the problem.
More than 70 percent of the antibiotics produced in the United States are used in agriculture, government data show, and most of those antibiotic types are used in humans. Farmers can buy the drugs in feed stores without prescriptions. The CDC says that practice contributes to the spread of superbugs that can be transmitted to people through food, water or direct contact with the animals.
“We’re in danger of losing antibiotics,” said Dave Rosenfeld, executive director of the consumer advocacy group OSPIRG that brought the bill idea to legislators.