Fueling Resistance: Rx. for Trouble

Here's an issue you don't hear very much about: Antibiotic use in ethanol production.

You heard me right. Some producers fermenting corn into ethanol add human antibiotics to their fermentation tanks. Why? To control bacteria in the tanks, which can reduce their yields if they get out of control.

Unfortunately, residues from these antibiotics turn up in the leftovers -- a mash called distiller's grains -- that is then fed to livestock. In another words, antibiotics in ethanol production end up being another source of unnecessary antibiotics in our food system. In fact, ethanol antibiotics come on top of the 74 percent of all American antibiotics the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now says are added to animal feeds. Both in ethanol and in animal feeds, these include drugs like penicillins, erythromycins and tetracyclines, which are rapidly declining in effectiveness for treating sick people as they get overused.

This is a dangerous business. Time and again, research has shown that the huge and often unnecessary antibiotic use in agriculture helps to create antibiotic resistance that can impact people. Overall, resistant bacterial infections cost our health care system as much as $38 billion each year in extra medical expenses, not to mention suffering and death.

We've tracked this ethanol issue for a while. There are better alternatives to antibiotics on the market; many ethanol producers use no antibiotics at all. Unfortunately, this fact hasn't stopped the ethanol supply industry (and maybe the pharmaceutical supply industry) from continuing to push antibiotics.

Antibiotics in ethanol production exist in a regulatory gray zone. Because they aren't added directly to animal feed, the Food and Drug Administration thus far has refused to proactively regulate antibiotics in ethanol production. With enough pressure, perhaps it would.

In the meantime, the ethanol supply industry is hedging its bets. It's moving ahead to get the FDA to formally approve the antibiotics in question as food additives. Last month, IATP submitted comments to the FDA in response to a petition by Ferm Solutions, Inc. (a company that sells antibiotics to ethanol plants) to make erythromycin an approved food additive. You can read our comments, written jointly with our partners in the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition.

In the last 12 months, the industry has petitioned the FDA to approve three such uses for antibiotics. Know this: once the FDA has approved an antibiotic as a food additive, it has never taken that additive off the market. Ever.

Yet, the fact that effective, affordable alternatives to antibiotics are readily available to ethanol producers means there is absolutely no reason for continued antibiotics use in ethanol.

For more information on antibiotic use in ethanol production, please read the IATP report, "Fueling Resistance."

-- David Wallinga, MD and Julia Olmstead, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

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