The Man Who Turned Antibiotics Into Animal Feed–Part 4
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 10, 2014
Jukes and his staff soon figured out that the “unidentified growth factor” miraculously spurring chick growth was the antibiotic itself. They also found they could get the same growth-promoting effect by feeding chicks on the waste products from the fermentation vats in which Streptomyces auriofaciens was grown, no doubt because some residue inevitably was left behind.
Lederle allowed Jukes to send out Aureomycin samples for testing at universities and agricultural experimental stations. A University of Florida researcher got “the most spectacular results”, a reported tripling of the growth rate in young pigs. Others reported gains that were far smaller but still significant. The company quickly began selling the product, not waiting to complete toxicity testing or routine assays on animals. It sold by the tanker, and demand was intense, particularly in the Midwestern states, where Aureomycin also cured an epidemic of bloody diarrhoea in pigs. A US Senator from Nebraska was soon complaining that his state wasn’t getting its fair share of this miraculous product. A Minnesota pharmacist is said to have bought it in bulk, repackaged it, and sold it at such a high mark-up that he retired to Florida on the profits.
Misleadingly, Lederle marketed the product at first as a source of vitamin B12, Jukes wrote, and was thus “able to avoid any registration problems”. When the FDA finally found out a year later that American livestock were being fed large quantities of antibiotics, an official there merely asked “what level of Aureomycin should be authorised for use as an animal feed supplement?”, and the company told him.
The New York Times broke the news on its front page on April 10, 1950, under the headline, “’Wonder Drug’ Aureomycin Found to Spur Growth 50%”. Science writer William L. Laurence quoted a Lederle report saying that this “spectacular” discovery held “enormous long-range significance for the survival of the human race in a world of dwindling resources and expanding populations”. The article concluded, “No undesirable side effects have been observed.”
Other studies in that era suggested that adding antibiotics to animal feed could produce a gain in the four to 12% range (and much less in more recent studies, see box), not 50%. But that still represented a significant advantage in the business of getting more meat to market less expensively. By eliminating certain chronic diseases, the daily antibiotic regimen also made it possible to raise animals in highly concentrated facilities. It would become the central feature of modern industrial agriculture. The innovation by Jukes and his colleagues soon spread worldwide, and the era of antibiotics devoted primarily to meat production, rather than to human health, had begun.