There has been growing concern in recent years about bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, which can make human and animal medicine less effective.
Critics have pushed for new regulatory restrictions and the ensuing debate has added another challenge to farmers’ efforts to build trust with consumers.
However, the discussion has not recognized the complexity of the issue and the risks are not well quantified, according to Dr. Leah Dorman, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s (OFBF) director of food programs.
Dorman, a veterinarian who co-chairs the National Institute on Animal Agriculture (NIAA) antibiotics council, said there is science on both sides of the debate.
“Unfortunately, we continue to have a scientific tug of war where people cherry pick information. Arguments used by both sides are often too simplistic and often biased,” she cautioned.
The vast majority of the antibiotics used on livestock – 87 percent – are used to treat disease.
The remainder is used for other reasons such as preventing or controlling disease or to promote growth.
While the concept of using antibiotics to treat a sick animal is generally accepted, giving antibiotics to healthy animals has been more controversial. However, supporters of the practice say giving low doses of antibiotics toanimals will prevent the need to give higher doses if a disease occurs.
Additionally, some are making the case that antibiotics used in livestock production are the cause of human antibiotic resistance; however, the science has not established a conclusive relationship. A white paper developed by the NIAA said the alternative risk of sub-optimal animal health may be higher than the risk of on-farm antibiotic use.
Dorman said the challenge is to balance those risks, noting that as a veterinarian, she took an oath that includes the “prevention and relief of animal suffering” and the “promotion of public health.”
Dorman believes current research still supports responsible use of antibiotics by farmers and that healthy animals lead to a healthy food supply. At the same time, she said that advancements in biosecurity, vaccinations andother animal husbandry practices are reducing the need for medication.
Some consumers have also expressed concerns about antibiotic residues in food. To prevent residues, the FDA requires farmers to follow withdrawal times so medicine can clear an animal’s system before it is sent to market.
According to the NIAA, “The ultimate priority about antibiotic use going forward is the development of well-established, science-based criterion in the regulatory decision-making process. Simultaneously, the livestock industry should remain focused on continual improvement of good animal husbandry practices and disease prevention.”
American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) policy favors the careful use of medication for livestock and opposes “the banning of such additives and therapeutics without adequate proof of danger.”
Pending federal bills H.R. 965 and S. 1211 would remove specific antibiotics and classes of antibiotics that are important for use in animals from the market.
In letters to Senate and House members, AFBF said the legislation would handicap veterinarians and farmers in their efforts to maintain animal health and protect the nation’s food supply.
“Proponents of the bill suggest that antibiotic use could constitute a public health threat through antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals being passed along, creating a similar resistance in humans,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman. “However, in more than 40 years of antibiotics being used to treat animals, such a public health threat has not arisen, and recent government data shows the potential that one might occur is declining.”
Also, improved food safety technologies have contributed to decreased bacteria survival in food processing/handling and in food-borne illnesses.
“Further, data indicates development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals is stable, and food-borne bacteria resistance in humans is declining,” Stallman said. “In fact, recent research indicates using antibiotics to keep animals healthy reduces the incidence of foodborne pathogens in meat.”
But because science is currently unable to resolve the public debate, the question is who will define how antibiotics should be used and what that will mean for farmers and the food supply.