While most consumers bewail the treatment of animals in high volume livestock production, there is another issue about which we should be more concerned; the prophylactic use of antibiotics in feed and water used to encourage growth and to maintain healthy herds. In recent months and years numerous organizations and scientific bodies are targeting this practice as a major contributor to developing antimicrobial resistant bacteria, impervious to many of our antibiotics.
Consumer Reports, a non-profit, independent consumer organization, has been diligently pursuing an investigation of the assertions by the meat industry that their consistent use of low dose antibiotics in livestock production has not been a key factor in the development of these resistant bugs. The Consumer studies have come to different conclusions. Essentially, their scientists have said that the risks we face in failing to fully regulate and enforce strict protocols on antibiotic usage in livestock agriculture will have disastrous consequences on global public health. They are by no means alone in those dire predictions.
Not surprisingly, the meat industry is loath to enforce widespread restrictions on antibiotic usage. Indeed, in the current, high volume confined area model of livestock production that we pursue, it is easy to see why. Because of the tight living quarters for the majority of American livestock, a disease can rip through a herd or flock in a matter of days. The prophylactic use of antibiotics in food and water, is an important measure producers take to keep their animals healthy in confinement. It also has the added value of promoting swift growth. And just to be clear, eliminating the use of prophylactic antibiotics does not mean failing to treat a sick animal.
In a recent blog post, Dr. Scott Hurd, DVM and Associate Professor and Food Risk Policy and Modeling Lab at Iowa State University, asserted, "FDA has limited and prohibited the use of veterinary antimicrobials where they perceived a potential real risk to public health, e.g. fluoroquinolones to treat poultry disease and cephalosporins for pre-hatch eggs." He went on to say, 'The amount of antibiotics used in food animals is a problem if the animals do not need them; if they are used injudiciously, and if those uses create a risk. It is also notable that of the miscalculated "80 percent" number (he refers to the oft quoted figure of 80 percent of antibiotics produced in the US are going into livestock production.), over 1/3 is for animal-use-only antimicrobials."
However Consumer Reports' scientists point out that while it is true that not all of the antibiotics used in food animal production are used in human medicine, a majority of them belong to the same drug "classes." Antibiotics in the same class often work to stop the growth of bacteria by using a similar mechanism of action. Giving one antibiotic to an animal that may not be used in human medicine may lead to the development of bacteria resistant to an antibiotic in the same class that is used in human medicine.
In addition, bacteria are very promiscuous and readily share their resistance genes with each other, which can further their spread. The argument that the industry is only using antibiotics restricted to animals does not negate repercussions for public health and the effectiveness of human antibiotics. In addition Consumer Reports scientists also make the point that healthy people don't eat antibiotics everyday and neither should healthy animals.
Dr. Hurd cited last year's publication of a suggested guideline from the FDA, "Due to FDA Guidance For Industry # 209, (May 2012) long term low dose uses which are for strictly economic or production purposes will soon be eliminated."
But unfortunately, the FDA draft guidance also specifically states that included in what is allowed under "judicious" use is the practice of feeding low doses of antibiotics to entire herds or flocks of healthy animals to prevent disease (prophylactic use). While on the surface this sounds like a good idea, it is important to note that many of these potential diseases are actually the result of the practices used in intensive livestock production. The prophylactic use of low dose antibiotics can be avoided as has been demonstrated in many systems, including organic agriculture, and conventional agriculture in Denmark where the prophylactic use of antibiotics in herds of animals has been banned.
Weaning the meat industry off of prophylactic antibiotic use is a complex and difficult process. Not only do producers legitimately fear a loss to their already thin profit margins, but this is huge business for pharmaceutical companies. And while any steps taken by industry in reducing that practice are to be applauded, there is no guarantee that a "guideline" is necessarily a pathway to success.
In a recent radio interview on Heritage Radio Network, Dr. Hurd proposed that offering a guideline will result in a faster voluntary reduction of growth promotant use than if it is written into law, where it will undoubtedly be challenged in court by producers, and possibly be held up for years more. No doubt he is correct about those court challenges. But unfortunately there are nowhere near enough large animal veterinarians to prescribe and monitor dosage, and with no financial incentive on the part of either producers or pharmaceutical companies, it's a stretch to imagine universal compliance.
Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of Consumer Reports, has come out strongly in support of legislation promoting the judicious use of antibiotics in food animal production that goes far beyond the current FDA guidance. Specifically, the organization has endorsed Representative Louise Slaughter's (D-NY) Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) as a solution to end the routine use of antibiotics on healthy animals and curb the growing threat of superbugs. Consumers Union has also endorsed the Delivering Antimicrobial Transparency in Animals (DATA) Act introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), which would require better reporting by industry regarding which antibiotics are being given to animals and for what purpose.
Dr. Hurd, skeptical that PAMTA will have the effects Rep. Slaughter hopes for, also recommended common sense measures that would do much to combat illness in conventional high volume animal agriculture: "Nutrition, good housing, ventilation, vaccination, and biosecurity." was his prescription. In addition, the industry is beginning to use more probiotics, as studies show their efficacy in reducing many of the pathogens, that up till now, have been typically countered with low level antibiotics. This is a huge step in the right direction but nowhere near enough.
Given the dearth of new medications in the pharmaceutical pipeline, consumers must participate in any way they can to ensure the elimination of antibiotics in livestock, save for treating specific illnesses. Buy from companies that comply with the new FDA guidelines at the very least. Speak about it with your medical providers. Contact your congressional representatives and let them know that you demand that they put people before profit, vote to protect their constituents by supporting the proposed legislation of PAMTA and DATA and stop the squandering of our medical arsenal.