WASHINGTON -- Barb Determan worries that the decision by McDonald's Corp. to force meat suppliers to phase out use of antibiotics on their animals could cause other restaurant chains to follow suit and eventually sway the government on the issue.
"We have a real job here to educate consumers and make them understand that we're not just throwing them around," Determan says of the two antibiotics she and her husband feed young piglets on their 3,000-hog farm in Early, Iowa. "Not every producer is using all antibiotics all the time."
Barb and Steve Determan mix into the feed of their piglets a drug called Mecadox to prevent them from getting intestinal diseases. Once the pigs reach 60 pounds, the Determans switch to the antibiotic BMD to help the pigs gain weight quickly.
When the hogs reach 160 to 180 pounds, they are taken off antibiotics entirely. That usually is about eight weeks before they are taken to slaughter.
McDonald's decision "is not based on science," Determan says, defending her family's use of the over-the-counter antibiotics as humane. "In the nursery, it is definitely for disease prevention," she says. Without the drugs, "they could die. The worst thing would be the suffering."
Concern is growing that feeding antibiotics to animals as a growth stimulant is also making the drugs less effective in fighting disease in humans. Nonetheless, the government is showing no inclination to follow McDonald's lead.
The Food and Drug Administration will continue to evaluate animal drugs on a case-by-case basis, says Dr. Stephen Sundlof, head of the agency's Center for Veterinary Medicine.
"We try to determine if there's a public health risk," said Sundlof. Banning animal antibiotics "would have to be based on a viable hazard."
Officials are taking a second look at animal drugs approved before the 1990s to see if there is a need to limit their use by making farmers first get a prescription from a veterinarian, Sundlof said.
Environmental groups, joined by many scientists and doctors, worry that many of the drugs used to treat both people and animals have been overused and misused, allowing bacteria that survive treatment to strengthen and spread. Studies have shown that overuse and misuse of antibiotics on humans and animals can enable some germs to develop an immunity to the drugs.
Two years ago, the FDA decided to ban an antibiotic fed to chickens because of evidence it makes people more susceptible to getting sick from drug-resistant campylobacter, a disease that causes food poisoning. The drug, Baytril, remains on the market while its maker, Bayer, challenges the agency's action.
The Institute of Medicine recommended last month that the FDA ban the use of antibiotics -- also called antimicrobials -- for growth promotion.
"To do nothing is, in effect, to allow the continued evolution of antimicrobial-resistant microbes, which poses serious near- and long-term threats to global health," the panel said.
While people need a prescription to get an antibiotic, farmers often do not. Some farmers buy the drugs over the counter and mix them into feed for their entire flocks or herds.
While the antibiotics act as a growth promoter, farmers and drug manufacturers say their primary purpose is to prevent livestock from getting sick. That is a particular concern for those raising hundreds of animals in one barn where a single infected animal can sicken a whole herd.
When one animal becomes infected, farmers often opt to treat all of them to prevent the disease from spreading. Many doctors and health experts consider this a misuse of the drugs.
Ronald Phillips, a spokesman for the pharmaceutical industry's Animal Health Institute, says that since the late 1980s, the FDA has been approving some animal drugs on a prescription-only basis.
"Some of the over-the-counter products that exist -- that kind of came into being because some animals are raised in very remote places where there might not be a veterinarian available for that purpose," Phillips said.
Now, most large farms have a veterinarian on hand to check the health of their animals and monitor how and when drugs are used, he said.
Rebecca Goldburg of Environmental Defense says the FDA should at least consider making all antibiotics available to farmers on a prescription-only basis.
"It's extraordinary that I, as a member of the public, have to go to the doctor for a little bottle," Goldburg said. "But if an animal production company wants the antibiotics or a farmer wants the antibiotics, they can just go to a vet and antibiotics are available (there) over the counter."
On the Net:
FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine: http://www.fda.gov/cvm/default.html