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Pew Report: Run-off, Antibiotics Must Be Addressed

By: Chris Stevens

The recently-released report from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (“Experts Urge U.S. to Bar Drugs in Animal Feed,” The Baltimore Sun, April 30, 2008) not only sheds further light on issues that should concern everyone in the Chesapeake Bay Region, but also offers some achievable recommendations to help improve our state’s resources for generations to come.

The comprehensive 2-1/2 year study by the Pew Commission, which focused on the effects of industrial farm animal production on public health, the environment, animal welfare, and rural America, found the routine use of antibiotics, along with poor-to-nonexistent waste handling procedures, of particular concern. These findings should resonate with Maryland residents who have witnessed the dramatic degradation of the Chesapeake Bay.

Industrial farm animal production is not new to this area. The Delmarva Peninsula-Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia-produces more than 567 million chickens each year. In Maryland alone, nearly 270 million chickens are raised each year for large poultry processors like Tyson Foods, Purdue Farms, and Montaire Farms.

As Maryland’s poultry industry grows, so do pressures on the Chesapeake Bay where agricultural runoff is the single, largest cause of pollution. Agricultural runoff from the one billion pounds of manure produced each year through raising chickens places a strain on the Chesapeake Bay and harms the health of the general public. Nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients contained in poultry waste end up in our Bay every time it rains or the tide comes up. These nutrients contribute to the large algae growth responsible for consuming the water’s oxygen.

We are also beginning to learn much more about the serious impacts on human health brought on by industrial farm animal production. In addition to the introduction of nutrients into the Bay, animal waste contains hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and heavy metals-all added to the animal’s feed to control disease and stimulate growth. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that as much as 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are given to farm animals.

Antibiotic use in sub-therapeutic levels for growth promotion is of particular concern to human health. This wide-spread, low level use results in the development of resistance in bacteria, heightening the possibility of resistant infections, making drugs ineffective in the treatment of illnesses in humans. In fact, the effectiveness of many antibiotics has begun to decline due to decades of unnecessary overuse in both human medicine and agriculture. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association have all urged a ban on growth promoting antibiotics.

Commissioners offered a range of well-grounded recommendations in their report. Phasing-out, and eventual banning, the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials are important first steps to controlling a practice that is jeopardizing public health. Improving regulation by addressing zoning issues and waste handling and treatment systems at industrial farm animal production facilities is absolutely necessary in our efforts to restore the Bay.

We encourage our elected officials to thoroughly review the Commission’s recommendations and work with poultry farmers, processors, and lawmakers to put these findings into action. It is time to act to protect the future of the Chesapeake Bay and to ensure the safety of our population.

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