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Kennedy Antibiotic Bill Meets "Resistance" from Big Pharma

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Senator Edward Kennedy just got less popular with Big Pharma. If that's possible.

After taking on prescription drug prices he is now tangling with antibiotics used in livestock.

The routine administration of growth-producing antibiotics (GPAs) to healthy animals has been US practice for years.

GPAs are thought to produce growth by killing intestinal bacteria so animal feed is assimilated more efficiently.

But the World Health Organization and American Medical Association condemn their use because they contribute to antibiotic resistance.

And the European Union made them illegal last year.

Environmentalists say GPA residues are found in food, fish and streams and food activists say they make farm conditions possible that would otherwise kill.

Now a bill introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy (Democrat-Massachusetts) and Senator Olympia Snowe (Republican-Maine)--and by Representative Louise Slaughter (Democrat-New York) in the House, a microbiologist--would phase out nontherapeutic use in livestock of "medically important antibiotics."

"It seems scarcely believable that these precious medications could be fed by the ton to chickens and pigs," reads the background to the Preservation of Antibiotics for Human Treatment Act of 2007 which was introduced in February.

"These precious drugs aren't even used to treat sick animals. They are used to fatten pigs and speed the growth of chickens. The result of this rampant overuse is clear: meat contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria sits on supermarket shelves all over America."

One provision of the bill that will be hard for Big Pharma to swallow is the documentation.

Makers of livestock drugs would be required to report amounts of antibiotics supplied, the number of animals treated and the uses for which the drugs are supplied--which comes pretty close to the R word. (Regulation)

Right now, the extent of GPA use is unknown because it's operated under an informal documentation system known as Trust Me.

Of course Big Pharma and agribusiness deny the danger of antibiotic resistance.

The "risk of resistant bacteria transferring from animals to humans via the food supply is extremely small," says the Animal Health Institute (AHI) on its web site.

AHI members include Abbott, Bayer, Dow, Monsanto, Novartis, Pfizer, Schering-Plough and 10 other life science (nee chemical) and animal health companies.

"In fact, one risk assessment shows the risk of dying from a bee sting is about 70 times greater than the risk of a treatment failure from a resistant food borne illness."

They also deny they use antibiotics nontherapeutically.

"The antibiotics are expensive and therefore the farmers try to reduce the use of these medicines," says David Warner spokesman of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). "If pigs are healthy, the pig farmer would not spend thousands of dollars on antibiotics." (see: scientific whaling)

But behind the scenes, they're probably agonizing in situation rooms.

Because high-volume, repeat-order, prescription-free, lawsuit-free (patients are SUPPOSED to die) ag sales are Big Pharma's financial backbone.

No high heeled salesmodels "educating" doctors or Purple Pill ad campaigns required.

In Europe, a scare mongering campaign by Roche, who makes avoparcin, actually delayed the GPA ban with predictions of mass bankruptcies of farmers and industry disaster. (Bankruptcies did not occur and the incidence of Vancomycin-resistent bacteria in poultry meat went down.)

That's why a study in the January-February issue of "Public Health Reports" is so unsettling.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University using data collected by Perdue on 7,000 chickens found that farmers actually lose money on GPAs.

The slight growth produced in chickens by antibiotics was offset by the cost of the drugs and producers lost about a penny per bird!

The National Chicken Council (NCC) lost no time in disputing the Johns Hopkins analysis saying the study was flawed because it applied average figures for costs that vary across the country.

But the damage was done.

Because if GPAs continue to be shown to be money losers--when their only justification has been to be money makers--Big Pharma has a lot more problems than the Kennedy bill on its hands.

It has to convince farmers to use a product that harms people, harms animals, harms the environment AND loses them money.

Which makes selling Vioxx look easy.
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Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health, is distributed by Random (more...)

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