Germs Becoming
Drug-Resistant Earlier Due
To Farm Antibiotics
From Discovery News Briefs
Worried scientists say farmers using antibiotics in chickens, cattle and fruit orchards are creating drug-resistant germs farther down the food chain than ever, a disturbing twist on the growing concern that antibiotics are fast losing their power.
Scientists have long suspected that farming was adding to the problem of antibiotic resistance, but now say they're finding the first strong evidence: A salmonella strain impervious to five antibiotics is rampant in Britain. U.S. scientists this month estimated it has sickened thousands of Americans, too -- including nearly killing a Vermont dairy farmer. Chickens sold in Minnesota were contaminated with another germ, campylobacter, which is resistant to a powerful antibiotic.
The U.S. government is about to impose stiff new requirements on makers of new animal antibiotics, and the World Health Organization is calling on experts to Geneva next week to search for other solutions.
"We're at the point right now where we...have got to do something," says Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who discovered the campylobacter risk. "This can't continue."
"We know there is a problem," agrees WHO's Dr. Klaus Stohr.
Some industry groups deny there's proof that antibiotics on the farm harm human health. "We don't know if it's true or not," says Kenneth May of the National Broiler Council.
Others acknowledge some risk, but insist it must be balanced with the realization that antibiotics are vital to animal health.
If farm antibiotics are restricted, "the real question is what will it do to the world's food supply?" says microbiologist Gail Cassell of Eli Lilly & Co. "My plea is that we need more data."
But the Food and Drug Administration considers the threat serious enough that it is preparing stiffer rules for new animal antibiotics, including requiring manufacturers to track treated animals for early resistance signs.
"There will be predetermined conditions of when the drug cannot be used anymore," says FDA veterinary chief Stephen Sundlof. The requirements "may just be too unpalatable for drug companies to accept."
Antibiotics are fast losing their power against numerous germs, particularly those spread in hospitals. Most to blame are doctors who overprescribe drugs and patients who take them improperly.
But scientists say antibiotics on the farm are helping foodborne germs mutate, too. Almost half the 50 million pounds of U.S.-produced antibiotics is used in animals -- 80 percent to help animals grow faster, not treat disease -- and 40,000 pounds are sprayed onto fruit trees.

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