By STACY FINZ
San Francisco Chronicle
June 15, 2009
But as some consumers become more obsessed with what they eat, including a hunger for meat and chicken raised naturally, without drugs, more producers are promoting their products as antibiotic free.
But is there truth in advertising?
Even producers who have eliminated antibiotics may be using other bacteria-killing compounds in the anti-microbial family, which have a murky definition under the law. Although not all anti-microbials are defined as antibiotics by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, their use opens up a minefield of issues.
-- Anti-microbials are not listed on labels.
-- They work the same way as antibiotics.
-- Many people consider them to be harmful to the environment.
"The only way to know if a producer is using anti-microbials is to call the manufacturer and ask them," said Urvashi Rangan, a scientist for the nonprofit Consumers Union.
"A manufacturer doesn't have to list it on the label even if they're making an antibiotic-free claim. And as far as we're concerned, if you're using a drug to kill a parasite or a micro-organism and you're making a 'no antibiotics' claim, you're being misleading."
Some antibiotics when overused can breed resistant bacteria in livestock, in turn threatening the future success of these drugs in humans. But many farmers and ranchers argue that other anti-microbials, specifically anti-parasite medications, are harmless to people.
While scientists debate the pros and cons of using any bacteria-killing drug in food animals, most agree that the only difference between antibiotics and anti-microbials is purely one of semantics.
According to the FDA, an anti-microbial is an umbrella for microbe-killing products that include antibiotics. Antibiotics are produced from living micro-organisms such as fungi, while anti-microbials also include synthetic products.
"Consumers shouldn't need a degree in zoology to read labels," said Charles Hansen, the executive director of the Truthful Labeling Coalition, an organization representing the natural chicken industry.
The group spearheaded a successful lawsuit against Tyson Foods for advertising that its poultry was raised without antibiotics, despite the fact that the company was injecting its chickens with ionophores before they hatched. Ionophores are a type of anti-microbial that combats intestinal infections and promotes growth, but is not known to impact antibiotic resistance in humans. In the end, Tyson was ordered to stop its advertising claims.
"If you're going to put something on a label, it should require a high degree of transparency," Hansen added.
Otherwise, said Marion Nestle, professor of food studies and public health at New York University and author of "What to Eat," it creates the "dread and outrage factor." Although there might not be enough evidence to say whether these drugs could be harmful to humans, consumers have a right to know what's going into their food, she said.
Consumers Union's Rangan is especially concerned about the effect anti-microbials have on the environment.
"These things are excreted from the animals, get into the ground and the water and become pollutants," she said.
Michael Payne, a veterinarian and pharmacologist who teaches at the University of California, Davis, said the careful use of some anti-microbials can be beneficial.
"The judicious and responsible use of anti-microbials as preventive medicine may not only guard against livestock illness, it may actually prevent the necessity of treating animals with larger amounts of more powerful antibiotics," he said.
"Our experience in veterinary medicine is that the use of measured, extremely small amounts of these compounds actually lowers mortality rates and reduces pain and suffering of livestock and poultry."
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Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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