Steve Ells, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grille, told members of a House Rules Committee he supports the “Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009,” proposed legislation that would ban the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals.

Chipotle was founded 16 years ago, and this year will serve more than 60 million pounds of naturally raised meat, including all of its pork and chicken, and more than 60 percent of its beef. The chain also serves an increasing amount of organic and local produce, and dairy products made with milk from cows that are never given the synthetic hormone rBGH.

Principal deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration Joshua Sharfstein also testified at the hearing, telling representatives that the use of antibiotics in livestock should be limited to curing or preventing disease but not used for growth promotion. Sharfstein said by limiting the use of antibiotics in livestock, bacterial resistance against the antibiotics used in humans would also be reduced.

“FDA also believes that the use of medications for prevention and control should be under the supervision of a veterinarian,” he said. That would curtail the non-prescription use of antibiotics by ranchers and farmers in livestock.

Supporters of the ban believe the overuse of antibiotics in both human medicine and animal agriculture contributes to the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections. Within two years of enactment of PAMTA, the FDA would be required to re-review the approvals it previously issued for animal feed uses of seven classes of antibiotics: penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides, lincosamides, streptogramins, aminoglycosides and sulfonamides.

The campaign to ban antibiotic use by livestock producers is at least a decade old, but the proposed legislation now under consideration represents the most significant threat to eliminating the use of these approved products. A handful of groups, often labeled as “anti-consumer,” such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, have used the antibiotic-resistance issue to sufficiently scare consumers and policy makers.

Logic would suggest much more research and debate needs to occur before we eliminate the use of antibiotics. When the legislation was proposed in March, American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman said in a letter to Congress that livestock producers “carefully, judiciously and according to label instructions” use antibiotics to treat, prevent and control disease in animals.

“Antibiotic use in animals does not pose a serious public health threat,” Stallman said. “Restricting access to these important tools will jeopardize animal health and compromise our ability to contribute to public health through food safety.”

As for Chipotle and founder Steve Ells’ view that antibiotics should be banned, his opinion should be considered significantly biased by the members of the House Rules Committee before which he testified. That’s because Ells and Chipotle stand to gain substantially if all beef, pork and poultry produced in America suddenly become antibiotic-free. It costs more to raise livestock without the use of approved antibiotics; therefore, all of Chipotle’s competitors would immediately be forced to raise prices to consumers, yet Chipotle’s prices could remain the same since Chipotle already uses the more expensive antibiotic-free meats.

Ells conceded in his testimony that Chipotle’s business model is not easily replicated by other restaurant companies, as the supply of ingredients from antibiotic-free sources is limited, and the costs tend to be higher for buyers of those ingredients.

But cost is not the only factor to be considered. What about the health and welfare of the animals? A ban on animal antibiotics would mean more disease and suffering for livestock. — Greg Henderson, Drovers editor