As with so many other controversies in our food system, antibiotic use in livestock is a hotly contested issue. According to many experts, the efficacy of our medical arsenal is being undermined by the agricultural industry through excessive antibiotic use in our meat supply, causing a scary proliferation of antibiotic-resistant microbes. What is also at stake in this controversy is the health and well-being of livestock raised in industrial conditions, and the health and well-being of those companies engaged in meat production.
In an effort to fully understand this complex issue I asked Dr. Scott Hurd, DMV, Associate Professor and Director of Food Risk Modeling and Policy Lab at the Iowa State University and a former USDA Deputy Undersecretary, and Emily Meredith, the Communications Director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a trade organization for the meat industry, to help us navigate the rationale for antibiotic use in livestock agriculture.
While I am skeptical of many of the statements offered by my colleagues here, providing consumers with an opportunity to better understand industry policies will help all of us move our systems forward in ways that improve our food supply, protect our environment and our medicines, and ensure that the business continues to thrive.
Keiffer: Consumer Reports, Concerned Scientists in the Public Interest, the National Antimicrobial Monitoring System, numerous scientists, and other agencies are sounding alarms about the overuse of antibiotics in the food system. Since 1977 the FDA has sought to limit the use of these medically important drugs in agriculture with little success. Various reports cite figures of up to 80 percent of antibiotics produced in this country going into the livestock sector, primarily to "prevent disease" and less obviously, to promote growth. Please comment on those alarms.
Hurd: Doctors and veterinarians have been concerned about antibiotic resistance since we first started using them to treat infectious disease. Farmers and their vets use good management, vaccination, nutrition, and environmental control along with antimicrobials to reduce death and illness.
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.
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, over 1/3 is for animal-use-only antimicrobials.
Meredith: Antibiotic resistance is an important public health threat, but the animal agriculture industry is being unfairly targeted as the culprit of resistance, when truly, resistance is a complex process with contributions from various sources.
Further, it's important to note that the figure of "80 percent of antibiotics going to livestock" is not a valid number because the procedures used to collect and analyze antibiotic data across animal and human health sectors are not standardized; it would be like comparing apples to oranges.
The bottom line is that contrary to popular belief, banning antimicrobials for livestock is not going to solve the problem of resistance.
Keiffer: In recent years, the FDA has produced a set of "voluntary guidelines" designed to draw down the routine and unregulated use of antibiotics in animal feed. However with more strains of antibiotic resistant microbes (ARMs) emerging in many of the typical food-borne pathogens, a "voluntary" approach to regulating our antibiotics would seem too little too late.
Hurd: As the Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety (USDA), I implemented the largest meat recall in U.S history through a "voluntary recall" (Hallmark-Westland in 2008). Many times a recall can be much more effective and definitely faster than cranking through the legal system. FDA's last voluntary guideline (#209) will spell the end of "growth promoting" antibiotic uses on farm, all without the hassle of lawyers and judges.
Keiffer: Despite the mounting scientific evidence that ARMs can evolve not just from the overuse of specific drugs such as tetracycline, but an entire drug class, (meaning every drug that might have a similar chemical structure), the livestock sector seems to be sticking with the story that the antibiotics used in agriculture do not significantly overlap those used in human medicine. Thus the industry position is that the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant pathogens is a result of doctors overprescribing to their human patients while the livestock industry bears little or no responsibility for these new bugs.
Hurd: Vets and farmers are concerned about antibiotic use and risk and are working on their part of the problem. Most of the meat groups have strict guidelines about drug use as part of their auditable quality assurance programs. Every "bug-drug" (bacteria-antibiotic) combination is unique. Broad generalizations and management of entire drug classes will not be effective. The medicines used to keep animals healthy and food safe are in short supply, as no new products have been developed in many decades.
Meredith: America's farmers and ranchers are very concerned about antibiotic resistance, and as Dr. Hurd emphasized, everyone is doing their part to address this issue.
That said, consumers must understand that there are many safeguards in place to ensure that antibiotics used in livestock production are being used as safely as possible. These safeguards include:
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has rigorous scientific processes and oversight for review and approval of all antibiotics used in livestock production to ensure safe food. According to FDA statistics, 35 percent of antibiotics sold for animal use are in classes not used in human medicine. All antibiotics are carefully examined for any human health implications before they are approved.
- The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) monitors and tests meat to ensure there are no harmful residues entering our food supply.
- Veterinarians, like Dr. Hurd, work diligently with producers and play a crucial role in ensuring the judicious use of antibiotics. Farmers and ranchers often consult veterinarians prior to treating their animals with antibiotics. In fact, many antibiotics require veterinarian prescription and oversight.
Keiffer: Most consumers recognize that some antibiotic use is necessary to treat sick animals. What they object to is the long-term low dose use that has been standard for the last 35 years or so.
Hurd: As mentioned, due to FDA 209, long term low dose uses which are for strictly economic or production purposes will soon be eliminated.
Meredith: Katy, on this we can agree; when animals are sick or at risk of becoming sick, they should be treated in adherence with evidence-based standards of veterinary medicine in ways that don't stress the animals or the environment and are in the best interest of long-term human health. I hope we can all agree that treating sick animals with antibiotics is the humane thing to do.
Keiffer: The confined living conditions of industrially produced animals seem to demand the use of some prophylactic to retard the spread of disease.
Hurd: The above is an incorrect misunderstanding of modern production. Antibiotics cost the producer extra money to use. They will take every other means needed before applying antimicrobials. Animals will always be raised in groups, indoors or outdoors. They get sick in both situations.
Organic farms run the risk of harming animal welfare, if they delay treatment. Treating an entire barn at the early signs of disease will save many lives. However, animals treated with antibiotics are no longer "organic", so the producer will suffer a financial penalty for using them.
Meredith: I think we need to be careful with the term "industrial." Yes, farming may not look like it did 50 years ago, but that's because agriculture is constantly evolving and improving. Antibiotics are one piece of the puzzle to ensure that animals are properly cared for and that all of the meat, milk and eggs entering our food supply are as safe as possible. We understand that many consumers have questions and concerns about antibiotics, but it's important to understand that America's farmers wouldn't want to do anything to jeopardize the food supply--after all, their animals are their livelihoods, so they must work everyday to ensure that they are properly cared for and that consumers purchasing their products are satisfied.
Keiffer: Final questions: what other measures besides the use of antibiotics could be taken to keep animals healthy?
Hurd: Nutrition, good housing, ventilation, vaccination, biosecurity
Keiffer: Will the industry put "people over profit" in phasing out all but the most necessary uses of antibiotics?
Hurd: A farmer who is unprofitable cannot care for his animals.
Consumers have a major stake and a big role to play in moving industry practices toward a model that works for everyone. The meat industry, at the very least, has a responsibility to their shareholders to be profitable, and if consumers aren't happy with the product and reduce their consumption, companies will not turn that dividend. The more we understand the industry, their challenges, and their processes, the more successfully we can communicate our demands for improved animal welfare, eliminating unnecessary use of medications, and managing environmental issues. Our power lies in voting with our dollars and participating in a meaningful dialogue with the industry.
I invite all readers to comment and to ask further questions about this topic.
To learn more about this issue, you can tune into any number of interviews with scientists, journalists and industry insiders on the subject of antibiotic use in agriculture on my radio show, What Doesn't Kill You; Food Industry Insight on the HeritageRadioNetwork.org.