From: Greg Edwards, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Published August 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Smithfield Agrees To Stop Routine Feeding of Antibiotics to Healthy Hogs

Smithfield Foods Inc. will stop feeding antibiotics routinely to healthy hogs used for meat products sold to Compass Group North America Inc., a large food service company.


Smithfield's deal with Compass of Charlotte, N.C. bans antibiotics used to treat humans but that are also added to animal feed to promote growth.


The agreement does not mean that young hogs will not get some antibiotics in their diet. Pigs still will be fed antibiotics during their stressful weaning time as a disease preventative, said Dennis Treacy, Smithfield's top environmental executive.


Nevertheless, the feeding agreement has been hailed by some concerned about the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Resistance has been linked to heavy use of the drugs in animal feed and to unnecessary prescriptions for human patients.


Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of top U.S. environmental and health groups, called the agreement announced yesterday "a groundbreaking purchasing policy that will help combat the antibiotic-resistance crisis in human medicine by reducing the use of key antibiotics in the production of ... pork."


Environmental Defense, a member of the coalition along with the Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility and others, participated in the agreement.


Compass also intends to apply its pork policy to chicken-products suppliers and will require pork and chicken suppliers to report their antibiotic use and reduce it over time.


The reporting requirement is new to Smithfield. The Virginia company already had a policy that prohibits the routine feeding of antibiotics used in human medicine to healthy animals.


Smithfield defines "routine" use as consistent use over an animal's entire life cycle. That leaves open the possibility of feeding antibiotics during weaning.


Treacy said the agreement is good business because it will save on antibiotics cost money and it makes sense to try animal husbandry and nutritional techniques as an alternative.


Antibiotics have been used as a feed additive for hogs and poultry since the 1950s.


Hogs get the principal benefit from antibiotics during their weaning time, when the drugs can help increase growth rates and feed efficiency by 5 percent to 10 percent, said Allen Harper, a swine specialist with Virginia Tech's Tidewater research center in Suffolk. Weaning, when an animal is taken from its mother and put on feed, lasts for about five weeks of a hog's six-month life.


Theories explaining the growth affect of antibiotics are that they combat some hardly noticeable infections brought on by the stress of weaning or that they reduce the number of microbes competing for the feed in an animals gut, Harper said.


Research has unequivocally shown that hogs can be raised without antibiotics, although their growth could drop off some, Harper said. Some substitute growth promoters are being tried, such as adding good bacteria or minerals such as copper or zinc to feed, he said.


Antibiotic feed additives are used mostly for growth. Sick animals refuse food and need to get their antibiotics through their water or injections, Harper said.


Removing antibiotics as an animal feed additive would have a positive impact on resistance when antibiotics are used to treat gastrointestinal infections in people, said Dr. Richard Wenzel, an infectious disease specialist and chairman of internal medicine at the Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Medicine.


A company that uses no antibiotics at all except on sick animals should be congratulated, he said.


A spokeswoman for the Union of Concerned Scientists called the Smithfield-Compass agreement an important first step but called for congressional action on a bill that would rid antibiotics from animal feed.


On July 28, the Food and Drug Administration withdrew a Cipro-like drug for use in poultry.


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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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