Antibiotic use in farming is common but with serious effects on human health, it is time to think about responsible use in animals
The miracle drug of the 20th century is in danger of running out of power. Antibiotic use in both humans and animals is contributing to areservoir of resistant bacteria resulting in increased human mortality and increased hospital stay lengths globally.
The World Health Organization (WHO) warns the misuse of antimicrobial medicines and new resistance mechanisms are "making the latest generation of antibiotics virtually ineffective", while at the 2013 G8 Summit, scientific ministers issued a statement calling antimicrobial resistance (AMR) "a major health security challenge of the twenty first century."
Antibiotica are an integral part of industrialised livestock production. The indiscriminate use of antibiotics in animal agriculture has come under scrutiny from governments, companies and consumers concerned with preserving for as long as possible the ever-diminishing arsenal of antimicrobials that work in humans.
Despite estimates that show up to 80% of the antibiotics sold in the US are used in farm animals, the contribution of animal agriculture to the overall threat of antimicrobial resistance to human health remains unclear. This complicates policy making, and has fuelled debate over the use of antibiotics on farms.
So how can we responsibly use antibiotics in animals without compromising food safety and human health, as well as animal health, welfare and productivity?
Current use in the US and UK
In the US, the debate focuses on so-called growth promoters – the use of antibiotics in animal feed as a means to enhance the growth of pigs, beef and poultry. In Europe, this kind of non-therapeutic use of antibiotics was banned in 2006 in an effort to curb over-use and reserve antibiotics for medicinal use only.
Despite poor public data it seems likely that the highest antimicrobial uses in both the US and the UK are in the meat sectors of pig and poultry, with beef production in the US also using high levels of antibiotics.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must make publicly available annual summaries of antimicrobial drug sales, but these are not categorised by species. In the UK antibiotics can only be administered to animals under a veterinary prescription and the vet is legally obligated to record use. However, there is no centralised collation of these data, in contrast to the Danish VETSTAT system.
Improving the way antibiotics use in animal food is reported is urgently needed to enable meaningful comparisons between species and countries, and to demonstrate any reduction or change in use over time. Experience from Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark suggests that voluntary action at producer and local levels can not only improve the reporting and understanding of antimicrobial use in livestock, but also help to drive and direct change at a national level.
There is consumer concern about antibiotic resistance and the need for food producers to address the issue.
In 2003, McDonald's introduced a global policy (pdf) restricting the use of medically important antimicrobials for production improvement purposes, amongst other measures. In 2007, Tyson Foods announced all its chicken was from birds raised without antibiotics. This claim was challenged when it emerged that ionophores (a type of antibiotics commonly used to treat or prevent the parasitic disease coccidiosis in poultry) were widely used in its poultry feed.
In February this year, Chick-Fil A also announced that all its meat will be from birds raised without antibiotics within five years. Similarly to Tyson, Chick-Fil A does not include phasing out the use of ionophores as part of this commitment. Furthermore, US based companies like Niman Ranch and Applegate have made statements such as "never given hormones or antibiotics – EVER!" and "we're anti antibiotics" respectively, in an attempt to differentiate themselves as purveyors of natural meats. However, despite emphasising disease prevention through husbandry practices, these 'no-tolerance' positions do not address the question of what farmers should do if and when their animals get sick.
The path of least resistance
The crisis of antibiotic resistance scares consumers, and this could be one reason why most retailers' public messaging in this area has focused on 'antibiotics free' claims, rather than a more nuanced framing around responsible use. At an industry roundtable held in Oxford in May, participants including vets, food scientists, farmers and representatives of the food and animal health industries, agreed that the development of a 'replace, reduce, refine' strategy could help drive the responsible use of antibiotics in food-producing animals.
Such an approach can guide action at company level as well as direct national policy by:
• Replacing antibiotics use where they are currently the first line of attack, primarily through comprehensive disease prevention strategies and practices.
• Reducing the use of antibiotics that are commonly deployed by better use of diagnostic tools and standardised methods of measuring the use of antibiotics.
• Refining the use of antibiotics to ensure intelligent and effective deployment (eg where they are needed to treat sick animals), including optimising recommendations on dosage, duration and routes of administration, as well as ensuring correct drug selection in light of concerns about antimicrobial resistance.
Unless livestock industries substantially change their practice in the next few years, it is likely that governments – in response to public concern – will introduce regulative restrictions on antimicrobial use. It is also probable that if strict reductions in antimicrobial use were enforced without also introducing changes to standard farming practice, there could be severe consequences for industry, animals and consumers, including increased disease and reduced productivity. The opportunity now is for farmers, industry and veterinarians to define and achieve more responsible antibiotic use at farm level.
Øistein Thorsen is a principal consultant for Benchmark Sustainability Science, based in New York City. You can tweet him @vinothorsen.
Originally Published: The Gaurdian