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Tuesday, May 19, 1998 Published at 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK

Animals and antibiotics: The benefits

There are fears that feeding antibiotics to farm animals could lead to drug-resistant bacteria being passed on to humans

For many years, animals have had antibiotics included in their food. It keeps them healthy and it makes them grow faster. But now a number of organisations, including the World Health Organisation and the European Commission want the practice ended. In the UK, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee and the National Consumer Council also want a ban on the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed.

They fear the over-use of such medicines could lead to the emergence of new drug-resistant "superbugs" that threaten both animal and human health. But the farming and pharmaceutical industries believe the risks are overstated. And they warn that banning the antibiotics will seriously harm the welfare of animals.

The case for using growth promoters:

The farming lobby argues that the inclusion of low doses of antibiotics in livestock feed plays an important role in producing high-quality, low-cost food. They say the antibiotics help to keep animals disease-free, which has the added benefit of promoting growth - animals get fatter quicker because they do not waste energy fighting illness.

The practice has been going on for nearly 50 years and the farming lobby says there is little evidence of any significant risk to human health. For a start, they say, most bacteria in animals are incapable of surviving in humans, so they provide no threat. The growth promoters used are not broad-spectrum antibiotics, and so the development of widespread resistance is, say farmers, highly unlikely.

They argue that the promoters used in Europe are not even designed to work against those few strains of bacteria that can jump the species barrier - such as salmonella - further reducing the likelihood of any cross-resistance or infection.

And they say it is a ban on growth promoters that could pose the greatest risk to health. Without their protection, animals could face more serious disease. In the year following prohibition in Sweden, an extra 50,000 pigs died of 'scours', or diarrhoea. Vets would have to resort to high doses of therapeutic antibiotics.

These drugs certainly kill bacteria, but in so doing they drive the process which selects in favour of resistant strains. So it is possible the ban on growth promoters could actually create the situation some now claim they want to prevent.

The European Union will have to consider the price of a ban. Meat production costs could rise by up to 10%. And what price the suffering of animals, which face the prospect of more serious disease and even death?

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