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May 26, 2011

Antibiotics in ethanol? Just say no.

Image used under Creative Commons license from Fickr user Argonne National Laboratory Here's an issue you don't hear very much about: antibiotic use in ethanol production.

You heard me right. Some ethanol producers use antibiotics to keep bacteria under control in their fermentation tanks (yields can go down if bacteria get out of control). Unfortunately, the residues from these antibiotics are turning up in what are called distiller's grains, a byproduct of ethanol production that's fed to livestock—yet another source of unnecessary antibiotics in our food system.

We've been tracking this issue for a while. We've found that there are very good alternatives to antibiotics on the market, and many ethanol producers are not using antibiotics at all. Unfortunately, this fact hasn't stopped the ethanol supply industry from continuing to push antibiotics.

Antibiotic use in ethanol production occupies a regulatory gray area. The drugs aren't added directly to the feed, so the Food and Drug Administration hasn't yet begun regulating their use—but they might. To fend off any potential objections to human-grade antibiotics winding up in livestock feed, the ethanol supply industry is trying to get the antibiotics they market approved as food additives.

This is a dangerous business. Time and again, research has shown that that antibiotic overuse in agriculture contributes to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and has caused severe threats to human health. 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.

On Wednesday, 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. For more information on the issue of antibiotic use in ethanol production, please read our report, "Fueling Resistance."

Image above used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user argonne.

Julia Olmstead

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