IONIA, Iowa --- Antibiotics are supposed to keep animals and humans healthy.
But a battle is raging concerning the alleged overuse of antibiotics in the livestock industry. Some people, including the Obama administration, believe it's a public health hazard.
Besides using antibiotics to treat sick animals, many farmers often use drugs to prevent or control diseases, improve feed efficiency and promote weight gain.
Excessive use, according to some groups and health experts, mostly by animal confinement operations, is leading to antibiotic resistance in humans. The primary culprits are consuming food from overly medicated animals and coming in contact with their waste, opponents said.
Livestock producers who use antibiotics say there's no direct evidence to back up that claim and the judicious use of antibiotics is good for animals and people. They say waiting for animals to get sick to use drugs leads to unhealthy herds and could possibly jeopardize human health.
Northeast Iowa farmers feel like they're caught in the cross-fire.
Kevin and Kendra Gilbert of rural Ionia sell about 15,000 hogs a year to Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo. The couple uses antibiotics to keep animals healthy --- sometimes when they're not sick.
The farmers said they would never do anything to jeopardize the health of their customers.
Kevin Gilbert said if people understood how much farmers care for their animals and the science behind the practice, the uproar concerning antibiotic use in livestock wouldn't be an issue.
"We've got to do education or we're in trouble," Gilbert said. "We want healthy pigs going to market not sick ones. If you don't have a healthy, good-tasting product, you'll be out of business."
Farmers on the other side of the fence believe giving antibiotics to animals that aren't sick is wrong.
John Gilbert (no relation to Kevin) of rural Iowa Falls doesn't give antibiotics to his hogs unless absolutely necessary. He's concerned overuse will make animals and humans immune to important drugs, and the public will blame all farmers.
"(I) don't feel antibiotics for non-therapeutic use is a problem for family farmers," John Gilbert said. "What I have to worry about is the downside if (the practice continues)."
The debate about antibiotics used in red meat and poultry production has been ongoing for decades. It's hit a fever pitch the last few years.
News departments of major television networks and large newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, have reported on the topic extensively.
Congress has also acted.
Food and health experts agree antibiotic resistance in humans does occur. Figuring out who's to blame and how to correct it, if possible, is controversial.
U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., introduced The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act in the House of Representatives in March of 2009. The bill would phase out the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics when raising livestock but not prevent use if animals are sick. A similar bill is lingering in the Senate.
In a press release explaining the bill, Rep. Slaughter said the "widespread practice of using antibiotics to promote livestock growth and compensate for unsanitary, crowded conditions has led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and other germs, rendering many of our most powerful drugs ineffective."
Experts backed up and refuted that claim during congressional hearings last summer.
Dr. Sandra Fryhofer testified on behalf of the American Medical Association. The organization believes antibiotic resistance is a major public health concern, mostly because of improper use by physicians and farmers.
"It is critical we manage the problem of resistance collaboratively across all health care professions and settings and consider all possible areas for intervention," she said during the hearing.
An AMA expert wasn't available for comment. The AMA supports the legislation.
Randall Singer, a veterinarian and professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota, also testified. He's studied antibiotic uses and resistance for 12 years as part of the school's College of Veterinary Medicine and School of Public Health.
Singer said there's no specific evidence linking agriculture's use of antibiotics as the primary cause of antibiotic resistance in humans. He believes farmers are being unfairly targeted.
"There's always some risk to human health with any antibiotic use," he said. "Society likes to point fingers. It's an easy scapegoat to put the blame of animal agriculture."
Antibiotics give Kevin Gilbert the confidence he's providing the public with the safest, best pork possible.
Kevin Gilbert and an employee moved 1,150 65-pound hogs Monday from a nursery to a finishing building he rents southeast of New Hampton. The hogs, used to a warm climate-controlled building, were temporarily exposed to a cold January morning. Being herded in and out of a truck is also stressful.
After the move, occasional coughs could be heard in the barn. If there's ever a time for respiratory issues to occur, Kevin Gilbert said this is it.
To prevent a problem, he has the antibiotic Chlortetracycline added to the hogs' feed ration for 10 to 14 days. It's the only time Kevin Gilbert said he treats animals when they're not sick.
"Our job as farmers is simple: Make the pigs as comfortable as possible," Kevin Gilbert said. "We tried without (preventive antibiotics) and found pigs get sick ... and we have issues."
Singer said that's true.
Animals get sick, Singer said, and the best vaccination plan won't stop it. He said while antibiotic resistance is a concern, it happens naturally. Treating both humans and livestock is a contributor.
"It's well documented the low doses of antibiotics keep animals healthy," Singer said.
A recent study by Dr. Scott Hurd, associate professor at Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and former U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy undersecretary for food safety, found that when pigs have been sick during their lives, they have a greater presence of food-safety pathogens on their carcasses.
"The benefits outweigh the risk to human health," Singer added.
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley of New Hartford relishes the fact he's one of two family farmers left in Congress. During a conference call with ag reporters Tuesday, he voiced support for livestock growers.
"Producers are voluntarily trying to use antibiotics in a very judicious and responsible manner," Grassley said.
The head of the Black Hawk County Cattlemen's Association thinks so.
Randy Lichty tries to limit antibiotic usage, but he often gives them to feeder cattle upon arrival at his farm. A semi ride and mingling of cattle from different herds can be problematic.
"I try to head off any problems. I think (farmers) are doing an excellent job," Lichty said.
In December, the Food and Drug Administration issued a report that said nearly 29 million pounds of antimicrobial drugs were sold to farmers. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimate 70 percent of total antibiotic use is for non-therapeutic reasons for food animals.
Federal Food regulators took a tentative step in June to regulate the use of some antibiotics, like penicillin, given to cattle, chickens and hogs. The FDA released a policy document stating that antibiotics only be used to treat sick animals and the veterinarians be involved when they're used.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world based in Cambridge, Mass., said the use of antimicrobials in agriculture plays a significant role in antibiotic resistance in humans.
The group wants to "eliminate harmful CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations)" and says resistant bacteria developed in confinements can be transferred to humans via food.
According to the UCS website, "As resistant strains of bacteria emerge, they have easy passage to humans --- right through the grocery store."
A spokesperson for the group wasn't available for comment.
Chris Petersen, a Clear Lake farmer and president of the Iowa Farmers Union, believes confining large numbers of animals indoors in close proximity basically forces farmers to inundate animals with antibiotics to keep them healthy.
Petersen used to farrow pigs indoors in the 1990s, but realized he was using way too many drugs. Antibiotic resistance scared him, he said. Now Petersen's hogs have access to the outdoors all the time and are much healthier, he said.
"I am proud to say I'm not part of the problem making antibiotics less affective," Petersen said.
A survey earlier this year by the Iowa Pork Producers Association said 75 percent of respondents were somewhat or very concerned about food safety. Fifty-nine percent said they were somewhat or very concerned about the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock production.
"We believe this is a public health issue of some urgency," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the FDA's principal deputy commissioner, in the New York Times. "We're looking to see some progress soon."
A new session of Congress convened Wednesday.
Sen. Grassley said he doesn't think pending antibiotic legislation has much of a chance until there's more certainty current practices hurt people. Research to this point, he said, is unclear.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo, was part of the congressional hearings concerning antibiotics in agriculture in June.
"While there is wide disagreement on how antibiotics use in animals could impact antibiotic resistance in humans, I have long been an advocate of a science-based approach," Braley said via e-mail last week. "I think we need to take a thorough look at the entire body of research available on this subject. Our main goal remains to have a safe, reliable food supply and to do everything we can to protect human health."
Some farmers and animal experts say restricting antibiotic use will hurt their pocketbooks and hurt animals.
The stakes are high.
According to government statistics, cash receipts in 2009 for cattle and hogs totaled nearly $7 billion in Iowa.
Kevin Gilbert believes his cost of production will go up and a low death ratio of 1 to 2 percent will increase.
"There would be a cost to it. How much? Who knows," he said.
Singer said limiting antibiotic use would negatively affect the health of livestock. Denmark banned the use of antibiotic growth promoters and preventives in swine production in 1998. Singer said the reliance on therapeutic doses of medically important antibiotics increased and overall herd health declined in the country.
"It will be interesting to see how the issue will play out with the new Congress," Singer said.