Risk grows along with crops, farm animals

Tuesday, June 22, 1999


Many Ozarks farmers are already aware of the hazards of antibiotics in feed, pesticides.

By Ron Sylvester

That Kansas City strip steak, milk, egg or apple on your table may have been exposed to large doses of antibiotics before leaving the farm.

And some reports say that’s contributing to food-borne illnesses that can fight off antibiotics in humans.

The emergence of drug-resistant strains of salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli 0157:H7 points to farm animals as a likely source, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Farmers use antibiotics to treat animal illnesses and to promote growth by mixing the drugs into feed for livestock and pesticides for plants.

To head off the threat of passing along diseases, the FDA is considering tightening its regulations on the use of agricultural antibiotics.

“I think it’s a little late that they’ve got in on this,” said Dr. Alastair Haddow, a Springfield infectious disease specialist. “But basically, it’s a step in the right direction.”

Perhaps none too soon.

“There’s a multidrug-resistant salmonella that started in Europe that is basically resistant to almost every antibiotic,” Haddow said. “It can potentially be a fatal disease if you get it, and it arose from an animal source.”

Ozarks farmers, however, may be getting a jump on the FDA.

Many have already started monitoring their use of antimicrobial drugs, said southwest Missouri veterinarian David Hopson.

“As equipment for measuring effects of the drugs has improved, it’s changed practices recently,” said Hopson, a dairy specialist with the University of Missouri Extension office in Ozark.

Farm tests have shown that traces of antibiotics can also show up in food products, Hopson said.

He said farmers should make sure they take animals off antibiotics within recommended periods before sending them to food-processing plants.

“There’s not as much danger of animals developing resistant bacteria, because they don’t live as long as humans,” Hopson said. “Humans take antibiotics throughout their lives, some for 100 years. But beef cattle may live only three years.”

Vegetarians may not be able to escape the risk, either.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 300,000 pounds of antibiotic pesticides are used each year on fruit trees throughout the nation.