Report: Ethanol industry moving away from antibiotic use

By Hope Deutscher | July 08, 2009
Report posted on July 27, 2009, at 12:08 p.m. CST

According to a recent report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, almost 45 percent of U.S. ethanol production facilities are not using antibiotics to control bacteria in fermentation tanks.

For years, ethanol producers have added antibiotics to the ethanol fermentation process to control bacterial breakouts in the fermentation tanks. According to the IATP, there are no reliable numbers available on how widespread the practice is because there is no reporting requirement for antibiotic use in ethanol production. In 2008, the U.S. Federal Drug and Food Administration began testing distillers dried grains with solubles (DDGS) and found residues from four types of antibiotics in the ethanol coproduct, which is sold as a livestock feed. The antibiotics found included erythromycin, tylosin and virginiamycin.

"On a basic level we found that bacteria are a big problem in ethanol production and if bacteria get out of control in the fermentors, ethanol yields really start to go down," said Julia Olmstead, a senior associate in the Rural Communities Program at the IATP. "So, producers need to have a way to control those bacteria. Most producers have been using antibiotics because they are widely available, relatively inexpensive and pretty easy, you just throw them into the fermentor and let them do their job and they're very effective. But these types of antibiotics are the same as the ones that we use to treat human and animal disease. I think a lot of producers had been operating under the assumption that these antibiotics were sort of dissipating or being rendered inactive during the ethanol production process and were really not an issue, not anything to be concerned about. But this FDA testing found that, in fact, these antibiotics were leaving residues in the distillers grains and, of course, those distillers grains are going out as a livestock feed so that means these antibiotics are moving from ethanol plants into our food supply."

Based on extensive conversations with ethanol plant producers and vendors of antimicrobial alternatives, Olmstead found that out of 170 ethanol producers, an estimated 45 percent already are avoiding the use of antibiotics and are using an alternative. Dozens of other facilities are running trials on antibiotic alternative treatments. Olmstead authored the report, titled "Fueling Resistance? Antibiotics in Ethanol Production."

"I think even producers themselves were pretty unaware of how many other producers are using these kinds of things," she said. There are three main alternatives on the market: a hops-derived extract that has natural antimicrobial properties that can be added to the fermentors; and several different chlorine dioxides - including a stabilized chlorine dioxide and a generated chlorine dioxide.

"Talking to producers who are using these alternatives, they told us that not only are these things as effective as antibiotics, but they're cost competitive," Olmstead added. "So that said to us, ‘hey considering the risks of using all antibiotics, and considering there are these effective cost competitive alternatives, there's no reason for producers to keep using antibiotics.' So that's really what our report nailed down. This is an unnecessary practice and something that the ethanol industry can and absolutely should move away from as quickly as possible."

Phibro Animal Health Corp. recently announced that its Ethanol Performance Group had not detected virginiamycin in recent distillers grains samples that used its registered Lactrol antimicrobial product. The company tested more than 40 samples from 11 facilities and reported that no residues were detected in the 42 samples of distillers grains. Phibro used the only validated test method accepted by the FDA for use in virginiamycin feed assays. In September, Phibro plans to submit this information with a petition to the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine for its Lactrol product. According to the company, results continue to demonstrate that Lactrol, when used as indicated, allows ethanol producers to produce the most alcohol from the least amount of corn.

Earlier this month, the FDA testified before Congress, suggesting that non-therapeutic use of antibiotics should be phased out in agriculture. More than 70 percent of all U.S. antibiotics are used as feed additives for healthy beef cattle, pigs and poultry to promote growth and help manage stresses on animals posed by confinement housing. Olmstead said there is strong evidence that overuse of antibiotics in livestock is associated with rising antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in humans.

The report calls for the ethanol industry to enact a voluntary and immediate ban on antibiotic use; the FDA to make its distillers grains testing public and to enforce existing regulations on antibiotic residues; and for the FDA to take further action in restricting all unnecessary uses of antibiotics in agriculture.

The full IATP report is available online at