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While the issue mostly was tabled in the U.S., it was gaining momentum elsewhere in the world.

In 1999, the European Union backed a ban on penicillin and other human antibiotics for growth in farm animals. Within four years, the use of antibiotics on animals fell 36 percent in Denmark, 45 percent in Norway and 69 percent in Sweden.

Levy, the Tufts University professor, and his colleagues had hoped that the EU’s ban would bolster the case for restricting the use of antibiotics in the U.S. But instead, the data has been used to argue both sides of the issue.

U.S. farmers have seized on reports that cases of diarrhea among young pigs increased in the first year after the EU ban, suggesting that animal health had declined. But public health advocates say that the outbreaks among pigs decreased once farmers improved the sanitary conditions by cleaning feedlots more frequently and giving animals more space.

U.S. groups like the National Chicken Council warn that restricting use of antibiotics will result in sicker animals, increasing costs for farmers _ and the price of meat and poultry for consumers. Some industry groups have projected costs for farmers would rise by $1 billion over 10 years, though those estimates have not been backed by outside groups.

Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian of the National Pork Producers Council, said the modern farming system is designed to keep animals healthy and produce large quantities of meat.

“The bottom line is that if these products go away, it may result in sicker pigs, more expensive food, and we don’t think it will improve public health,” Wagstrom said.

Meat prices in Europe have not risen dramatically since the EU’s ban. Danish authorities estimate the total costs for pig farmers increased by just 1 percent, or about $1.35 for every pig slaughtered _ far below food industry estimates.

U.S. health experts suggest the increase here would be modest, too. The Institute of Medicine, a non-partisan nonpartisan group of medical experts who advise the federal government on public health issues, estimates the average U.S. consumer would spend between $5 and $10 more per year on meat if antibiotics were restricted.

THE RESULT

Farmers continue to argue that antibiotics are necessary to have a steady supply of low-cost, disease-free meat for Americans, who eat about three-quarters of a pound per day _ roughly twice the global average. They acknowledge that antibiotic-free animals can be raised by small, organic farms but say large-scale meat production requires antibiotics to keep animals healthy.

“We’re pretty darn committed to our cattle, and our goal is to not have them get sick,” said Mike Apley, a cattle farmer and professor of veterinary medicine at Kansas State University.

Farmers like Apley also point to a handful of studies that conclude the risk to humans is extremely low. One 2004 estimate conducted by scientists consulting for the meat industry, for instance, placed the likelihood that antibiotic would not work in a human due to animal use at 1 in 82 million.

And, they argue, it’s the overuse of antibiotics in humans _ not animals _ that’s causing a rise in drug-resistant bacteria. Indeed, for decades, doctors have prescribed antibiotics for common ailments like the flu and sinus infections that are not caused by bacteria. Studies show doctors often feel pressured to prescribe the drugs.

“The problem is not an animal or human issue per se,” said Dr. Tom Chiller, associate director for epidemiologic science at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s about using the antibiotics as judiciously as we possibly can in situations where they are needed.”

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