Ethanol Producers Concerned About Antibiotic Regulation

Antibiotic overuse concerns the health care industry, as bacterial infections have become resistant to them, but why are ethanol producers concerned?  What do antibiotics have to do with making fuel from corn?  The answer lies in the process to convert corn into fuel involving enzymes, yeast and sugar and the by-product called distillers grain sold as livestock feed.

Image by larszAntibiotic use in ethanol production may be regulated by the FDA
Antibiotic use in ethanol production may be regulated by the FDA

Ethanol is a biofuel that has taken heat for raising food prices and been touted to have the potential to save our economyBusinessWeek explains the process for making ethanol:

The fuel is derived from plants through a fairly straightforward process. In one common method Corn, is first ground into a fine powder, mixed with water, and then heated. An enzyme is then added to convert the mixture into sugars before yeast is added to ferment it. The resulting liquid, called “beer,” is about 10% alcohol. A distillation process then separates the alcohol from the rest of the mixture before the remaining water is removed. The result is essentially pure alcohol. A small amount of gas is added to render the liquid undrinkable. Then the fuel can be used by itself or as a supplement to gasoline to power cars.

Unfortunately for ethanol producers, bacteria can wreck havoc on the process making lactic acid instead of alcohol.  To combat such bacteria, ethanol manufacturers use penicillin, virginiamycin, erythromycin and tylosi to kill the bacteria.  Concerns about antibiotic use in ethanol production are twofold:

  1. Using antibiotics in ethanol production contributes to their over usage which could create “superbugs” that are drug resistant and a concern for health care.
  2. The antibiotics could find their way into the food chain since ethanol by-products (distillers grain) are sold as livestock feed and have been linked to an increase in e coli in cattle.

Tests are being done on samples from 60 ethanol plants in the US. As a result, the FDA is considering restricting antibiotic use in ethanol production. Ethanol manufacturers are concerned such regulation will hurt their profits.


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