Phibro sets record straight on antibiotic use in ethanol industry

By Hope Deutscher | July 08, 2009
Report posted Aug. 7, 2009, at 2:48 p.m. CST

For years antimicrobials have been used by the ethanol industry to control bacteria breakouts during the process and, according to Tom Slunecka, vice president of marketing for PhibroChem Ethanol Performance Group, antimicrobials - both antibiotics and chemicals - are used by many facilities and are vital for good strong economic production of ethanol.

Recently, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy released a report that called for the ethanol industry to stop using necessary antibiotics in the production process. (Read "Report: Ethanol industry moving away from antibiotic use.")

According to Phibro, through the use of small amounts of antibiotics, such as the company's trademarked Lactrol antimicrobial which consists of virginiamycin, the U.S. renewable fuels industry eliminates the need to cultivate an additional 3.2 million acres to produce an extra 500 million bushels of corn. Since its introduction in 1993, Lactrol has been safely used in renewable fuels and distillers grains production. According to Phibro, it has been sold under an U.S. Food and Drug Administration letter of no objection in addition to the regulatory discretion of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

The FDA decides which products are safe to use, Slunecka said. "Phibro's virginiamycin works very well in the ethanol process in that it doesn't break down too rapidly, giving us a thorough treatment process within the fermentation tanks," he said. "It is also a broad spectrum product, so it kills many different forms of microbes within the process. Then it also degrades rapidly during distillation and drying - minimizing the risk of any residues in distillers grains."

Phibro is the only manufacturer of virginiamycin, which has also been found to be effective when used in animal feed. "It is a complicated issue and one must remember that antibiotics used in a chemical process have a completely different life cycle than antibiotics used in animal feed or for human health," Slunecka said. "Ethanol plants are not living things and so their lifecycle starts and ends with that single fermentation tank."

Recently, Phibro conducted its own study to determine how much antibiotic residue remained in 40 different samples from 11 ethanol facilities. All of those results, which were tested by Phibro's lab and an independent lab, were negative for residue, he said. "It wasn't unpredicted...this product has been used for so long in the animal health world and we know this product inside and out. The FDA knows this product very well and this type of residue testing has been going on for a long time," Slunecka added.

This fall, Phibro plans to submit a food additive petition to the FDA. "This is the next level of scrutiny. We understand that all processed aids in the ethanol industry will ultimately go through this. In the class of antimicrobials, including those that are antibiotics and chemicals, all antimicrobials have been requested to go through the food additive petition. The food additive petition process is very specific product by product but it demonstrates to the FDA all of the risk and factors in anything that might apply to residues at certain levels as it pertains to the food chain. Many products that we buy off the grocery store shelves today have gone through the food additive process to make sure that they are safe," he said. With increased use of distillers grains in feed rations, antimicrobials have gained increased attention.

"We agree that there are alternatives but all alternatives will have to go through the food additive petition. This will level the playing field and strengthen the industry," Slunecka said. "When you look at how much is used in ethanol versus how much is used in animal feed, it's minisculeThe approved dosage rate for treatment in some animals is higher than the average dosage recommended in ethanol plants. Due to the nature of today's modern ethanol plants, antibiotic dosage levels are very low."