'Superbug' fears spur push for livestock antibiotic ban

ALBANY — Consumer advocates are urging New York officials to enact a ban on the routine use of antibiotics in healthy livestock and poultry, contending it would counter the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that sicken tens of thousands of Americans annually.

Groups including the New York Public Interest Research Group, Consumer Reports and the Center for Food Safety argued Thursday action is needed by state governments and restaurant chains in the face of what they called inertia at the federal government level.

So far, only California and Maryland have adopted the antibiotic restrictions sought by the consumer watchdogs.

However, they said important strides have been made in the poultry industry to lessen reliance on antibiotics on chickens bred for human consumption.

"More and more fast-food restaurants are joining and getting on board (by shifting to sources that don't use animals getting antibiotics routinely, but on beef, turkey, and pork, we've had much slower progress," said Blair Horner, NYPIRG's director.

The consumer watchdogs rated Chipotle and Panera Bread as "early leaders" in the effort to reduce antibiotics in meat dishes. Outlets of both companies serve only beef raised without the routine use of antibiotics, according to Horner and Chuck Bell, programs director for Consumer Reports.

They also said McDonald's, the world's largest purchaser of beef, has made significant progress in recent months by setting targets for reducing antibiotics in the meats it acquires.

The advocates cited California and Maryland as trailblazers in the movement to curb the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals. They are now pressing New York lawmakers to embrace legislation that mirrors what those two states now have on the books.

At the statehouse, Horner urged lawmakers to pass a measure sponsored by Sen. Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan, and Assemblywoman Jamie Romeo, D-Irondequoit, that would limit the use of antibiotics in healthy livestock. The measure would require the state Board of Veterinary Medicine, the Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Department of Health to set the guidelines controlling the use of the antibiotics in livestock.

The legislation is being vigorously opposed by the New York Farm Bureau, the leading voice for farmers across the state.

"Preventing farmers from controlling disease outbreak is dangerous and inhumane," the bureau said in a bill memo sent to lawmakers. The bureau also contended the legislation would result in "negative health consequences" and increase the likelihood that antimocrobials -- agents that kill microorganisms -- would enter the food supply.

Steve Ammerman, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, told CNHI there is already significant work being done at the federal level to regulate antibiotics in food-producing livestock.

The consumer advocates estimated that more than 160,000 Americans die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections.

They also said nearly two-thirds of the antibiotics sold in the country are for use in livestock, with the cattle industry using more than any other sector.

   

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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