Antibiotic Use in Ethanol Production

Antibiotics in Ethanol

I recently attended a symposium where the issue of using antibiotics in ethanol production was discussed.

This matter has been a point of debate for many years and will probably continue as such unless the FDA or some other regulatory entity decides to take a firm stand against allowing antibiotics to be used. As it currently stands, the use of antibiotics in ethanol production contradicts the FDA’s own stated policy and internal guidance on antimicrobial resistance. If or when this will translate into a policy making the use of antibiotics in fermentation illegal is anyone’s guess.

The arguments for using antibiotics to control bacteria in fermentations are simple and straightforward. First of all, they work, and this effectiveness is well documented. Secondly, antibiotics are fairly inexpensive, and in an era of very thin margins, ethanol producers have a significant economic incentive to use least cost elements in their process.

Against this backdrop, several arguments are weighing very heavily against the use of antibiotics. First among those is the potential for the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotic resistance poses a threat to every one of us. Basic microbiology demonstrates that any use of antibiotics can potentially add to the selection pressure in the broader environment for antibiotic resistance. Their use in ethanol production is no exception. Viable alternatives to antibiotics exist to control microbes in ethanol production, a fact demonstrated by a large number of ethanol producers who have already phased out or decreased their use of antibiotics in fermentation.

Secondly, and potentially more important from a marketing and public perception perspective, is the problem of residues. It is a fact, repeatedly proven by numerous studies, that antibiotic residues are present in distillers grains that come from ethanol production facilities that use antibiotics. Even a cursory glance at the issue on the internet will disclose voluminous examples of companies that have declared their intention to take a stand for the responsible use of antibiotics and against their use where they aren’t warranted. This campaign is gaining considerable momentum and will certainly continue as the development of resistant bacteria will undoubtedly continue.

The existence of effective cost-competitive alternatives to antibiotics for ethanol production means there are no public health grounds for permitting the use of antibiotics that result in antibiotic residues in livestock feeds since there are no animal or human health benefits. It is not in the interest of public health to allow the feeding of antibiotics, no matter how low the concentration, to potentially billions of animals for no medical purpose.

And finally, many believe that since the ethanol industry promotes itself as a cleaner, healthier, and greener alternative, the use of antibiotics for non-medical purposes should be antiethical to anyone involved in the business.

Bob Miller

Bob Miller, Industry Consultant

Education: Bachelor of science in mechanical engineering, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1975. Masters in management, Salve Regina University, Newport, RI, 1986. Masters in international strategic studies, U.S. Naval War College, Newport, RI, 1986.

Career: Consultant since 2011. Plant manager, E Energy Adams, Adams, NE, 2007-11. Vice president of bulk manufacturing, Florida Distillers, Lake Alfred, FL, 1995-2007. Plant manager, Florida Distillers, Auburndale, FL, 1991-95. Production supervisor, Florida Distillers, Lake Alfred, FL, 1989-91. Commissioned officer, U.S. Navy carrier pilot, 1975-89. Enlisted petty officer, U.S. Navy Polaris submarine missile technician, 1968-75.

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