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Cattle and poultry farms that produce most of our hamburgers or fried chicken have been getting a lot of negative attention. Public health advocates are accusing those farms of overusing antibiotics on their animals, creating dangerous strains of drug-resistant bacteria.
The Food and Drug Administration wants to give veterinarians a bigger role in controlling antibiotic use on the farm. But as NPR's Dan Charles reports, vets themselves have conflicting loyalties.
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DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: In a barn outside Manhattan, Kansas, researchers from Kansas State University are trying to solve the riddle of bovine respiratory disease.
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CHARLES: They're sticking plastic rods down the noses of 6-month-old calves, collecting samples of bacteria.
MIKE APLEY: This bacteria - Mannheimia haemolytica - lives in most of the cattle.
CHARLES: Mike Apley is one of the researchers here.
APLEY: It's in their nose. It's down where our tonsils would be.
CHARLES: Sometimes, those bacteria make cattle sick. So when cattlemen think animals are at risk of getting sick, they'll sometimes use antibiotics to prevent an outbreak. Apley and his colleagues are monitoring these cattle to find out, among other things, do the antibiotics actually help?
APLEY: To me, that's the next real area of research we need to focus on - is the prevention and control uses that are legal to use out there today, which ones are still actually giving us that benefit? If they're not, easy decision.
CHARLES: Don't use the drugs. Farmers save money; and meat industry critics, who want farmers to use fewer antibiotics, they're happy, too.
APLEY: It's a win-win for everyone.
CHARLES: But decisions about antibiotics are not always a win-win. And when there's a conflict, veterinarians are right in the middle of it. I met veterinarian Steven Henry in Abilene, Kansas, the day after he got back from a long trip visiting Midwestern pork producers. Most farmers who raise animals rely on veterinarians like him for advice.
DR. STEVEN HENRY: They don't want to spend the money on the drugs, if they don't need to. This stuff's expensive. Now, you have to juxtapose that with a tremendous amount of pressure from pharmaceutical companies to move product.
CHARLES: The companies aim ad campaigns at farmers and veterinarians. Henry says that marketing does work. Farmers sometime use more drugs than they should. And veterinarians themselves may have a financial interest in such decisions. Many of them re-sell antibiotics to farmers.
HENRY: There's some margin in there for the veterinarians. So there's some incentive for the veterinarians to sell more.
CHARLES: In Denmark, the government took away that incentive; it stopped veterinarians from earning money by selling antibiotics, in 1994. The next year, antibiotic use in Denmark dropped sharply. Later, Denmark passed other regulations strictly limiting antibiotic use in agriculture.
But as Steven Henry and I drive away from his office, he says despite all that, "I would still trust veterinarians more than regulation, to make sure antibiotics are used wisely."
HENRY: Tremendously greater faith in veterinarians, who are at the animal's side, care for the animals; know the people, work with the people; tremendously more confidence there in proper use, than anything the government even hopes to do.
CHARLES: When veterinarians enter their profession, they swear an oath to protect animals and also to promote public health. But they soon develop other loyalties, too - above all, to farmers, who have to earn money.
Antibiotics can make meat production more efficient. They can make animals grow faster, or reduce the risk of liver abscesses in feedlot cattle that are eating energy-rich diets of corn.Mike Apley, the veterinarian at Kansas State, says those things matter when your clients are struggling to stay in business.
APLEY: Cost of production is a reality in food-animal medicine and food-animal production.
CHARLES: Critics of the meat industry, though, say using antibiotics this way is irresponsible. Anytime antibiotics are used, it increases the chances that bacteria will evolve resistance to them. That raises the risk of future infections that doctors can't treat as easily.
Michael Blackwell, a veterinarian and former official at the Food and Drug Administration, says it's not acceptable to take that risk just to produce meat more cheaply. We may not see clear evidence of harm now, he says, but we shouldn't wait until we do.
DR. MICHAEL BLACKWELL: It has been said, back when I was in the agency, sometimes actions cannot be taken until there are, literally, bodies in the street.
CHARLES: Blackwell is a leader of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, and a critic of methods used by large meat producers. He says the government should stop farmers from using antibiotics for anything but fighting disease.
BLACKWELL: We've got enough science to know that we need to act.
CHARLES: Kansas State's Mike Apley, for his part, says the government should stop any antibiotic use if there's solid evidence it could harm people. But he says the scientific evidence so far doesn't persuade him that's he's doing anything risky.
APLEY: I want to fully support human health but at the same time, I don't want to remove valuable tools when that removal will not have a benefit for human health. You know, we're really - it's tough. It's tough.
CHARLES: It's tough because of scientific uncertainty, but also because veterinarians serve two masters: public health and food production.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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