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Farmers spar with activists about use of antibiotics
By JAMIE CLARK TIRALLA
LaPLATA, Md. (Nov. 29, 2016) — Farmers and activists clashed over antibiotic use in animal agriculture at a community forum held on in Charles County on Nov. 17.
While activists pushed for a total ban on antibiotics in raising food animals, several farmers who attended said forthcoming regulations will drastically limit antibiotic use, which isn’t an issue in the county anyway.
Organizers from Fair Farms Maryland and the Maryland Campaign to Keep Antibiotics Working hosted the event, which included a panel discussion moderated by Peter Murphy, the president of the board of Charles County commissioners.
“The statistics are staggering,” said Dr. Matthew Ferreira, a Baltimore veterinarian. “Over use of antibiotics in food-producing animals is a major threat to human health.”
The panel included Ferreira, along with Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, executive director for the Children’s Environmental Health Network, Mae Wu, senior attorney for the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Prince George’s county farmer Brian Wort.
Panelists advocated for a state ban on the routine use of antibiotics in livestock to close what they called a loophole in federal regulations put in place by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“An antibiotic stewardship program avoids using antibiotics by preventing disease,” Wu said. “The FDA’s approach is the exact opposite. They’re using antibiotics to prevent disease.”
Farm Bureau representatives in the audience disagreed.
Colby Ferguson, the director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau said the Veterinary Feed Directive, which goes into effect on January 1, 2017, “has teeth.”
“We’re going to see a dramatic drop in (antibiotic) use,” Ferguson said, who also serves on the Maryland Department of Agriculture Task Force for the implementation of the federal guidelines. “In Maryland, there will be a stiff removal entirely of antibiotics from bagged feed for livestock after the end of this year.”
Witherspoon said non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in food an animals is putting children’s health at risk.
“In 2013, there were almost 20,000 infections due to food borne illness, 4,200 hospitalizations and 80 deaths, all among children,” Witherspoon said, citing statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Salmonella is the leading cause of food borne illness in children, Witherspoon said. Wort added that 75 percent of the chicken in grocery stores has the harmful bacteria.
“Food borne illness is one thing and antibiotic resistance is another,” said Kevin Warring, the chairman of the Charles County Farm Bureau Young Farmers Committee.
Of the 300 billion meals served annually in the United States, Warring said 0.0001 percent result in food borne illness.
“We have an amazing food system that is preventing illness,” Warring said. “When you put that in place with proper food handling, that is a significant accomplishment.”
Gilbert “B.J.” Bowling, vice president of the Charles County Farm Bureau said antibiotic use was not an issue in Charles County and that regulation at the local or state level was not needed.
“I’ve heard a lot about the problems nationally and how Perdue and the larger animal producers in the state are correcting the problem. My question is where exactly is the problem in the state of Maryland that we need legislation to fix?” Bowling asked.
Wu answered that Perdue wasn’t the only poultry producer in the state and that legislation was needed to end routine use of antibiotics in all animal producers.
Commissioner Murphy said the forum was an effective format for starting the dialogue and helping to clarify the issue. On the local level, he said he didn’t feel that legislation was necessary.
“What we’re doing instead is proposing legislation that would incentivize restaurants and businesses to buy local. That’s how much confidence we have in our local farmers,” Murphy said.
Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake and founder of Fair Farms Maryland said the latter organization, which launched last year, is working to promote a thriving agricultural community.
“More than 156 organizations have signed onto our campaign,” Nicholas said. “We are taking a cooperative approach to solve these kind of issues.”
Fair Farms Maryland was among the supporters of antibiotics legislation that failed to pass in the 2016 legislative session. Activists for the Maryland Campaign to Keep Antibiotics
Working said they anticipate Sen. Paul Pinsky and Del. Shane Robinson will reintroduce the legislation in the coming session.
David Hancock, president of the Charles County Farm Bureau said the new federal regulations in the Veterinarians Feed Directive go far enough and that state legislation would only hurt Maryland farmers and possibly consumers as well.
“I don’t see the need to jump the gun and add additional regulations when we haven’t even been given time to see the effect the new regulations will have,” Hancock said. “Farmers don’t use more antibiotics than they need to because we’re concerned about human safety, because it’s what the public is demanding, and because it’s just not economical.”