Healthy Poultry = Sick Humans?

Tommie Smith
CBS/The Early Show
What's good for poultry is not so good for people.

That's the Food and Drug Administration's conclusion Friday as it calls for a ban on antibiotics widely used to keep the nation's chickens and turkeys healthy.

The FDA reportedly plans to ban two antibiotics used by poultry farmers because of a risk that humans who eat poultry treated with the antibiotics could become infected with germs that resist treatment.

It may be the first time it has pulled any drug to combat infections that have grown resistant to antibiotics, CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports.

Public health organizations, including the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, have advocated such a ban for years. But agriculture and pharmaceutical interests have successfully held them off until now.

The drugs, known as fluroqinolones, are used to fight the bacteria campylobacter, which causes respiratory problems in poultry and gastrointestinal problems in humans.

Fluroqinolones have been available for human use since 1986 and are often used to treat serious gastrointestinal illness. The FDA ban would not affect the availability of the drugs for humans.

The drugs were approved for chickens, turkeys and cattle in the mid-1990s.

Because the birds are raised in large flocks, it is impossible to treat them individually, so the drugs are put in drinking water for the entire flocks.

Since the drugs were approved for animal use, the incidence of infections resistant to fluoroquinolones in humans has increased dramatically.

After years of testing, the FDA concluded this year that the health of at least 5,000 Americans is affected each year by the use of these drugs in chickens. Americans eat 81 pounds of chicken per-person per-year.

The FDA believe people become sickened by eating animals that are carrying antibiotic-resistant campylobacter bacteria. The bacteria in the animals are resistant because the animals were treated with fluoroquinolones.

When people sickened by the antibiotic-resistant bacteria seek treatment, fluoroquinolones is far less effective than normal. The illness could then be life-threatening to the elderly, to children and to people with depressed immune systems.

Resistance develops when antibiotics are overused, both by doctors treating people and by farmers treating animals.

Human resistance to antibiotics in general has been a major public health concern, with many critics blaming agriculture for overusing the drugs in the nation's food supply.

The FDA is also studying the use of fluoroquinolones in cattle.

The agency's action — the government's first concrete step toward reversing antibiotic resistance — is meeting with resistance from the Bayer Corp., which makes one of the drugs, called Baytril.

Bayer plans to contest the government finding.

"We haven't seen evidence that leads us to believe that we're causing ham," said John Payne, a company president.

The poultry industry also has ruffled feathers, saying the antibiotics are used in just 1 or 2 percent of the nation's supply of chickens and turkeys.

But supporters of the FDA action have hailed it.

Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group said, "This action will reduce the spread of bacteria that are not sensitive to a very powerful antibiotic, and that is good for public health."

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