The role of antibiotics in food animals is an all too familiar topic in online discussions, but the issue continues to escalate. Three developments were widely shared in social media interactions this week.
A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says the unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals raised for food endangers medicine’s ability to treat infections in young patients. The lead author, Dr. Jerome Paulson, said antibiotic-resistant infection is not something parents need to have a high level of anxiety about on a day-to-day basis as such infections are rare. Still, coverage of the report at MotherJones.com carried the bombastic headline, “The Meat Industry is Killing Kids.”
Consumer Reports (CR) came out with a three-part report on the issue of antibiotic resistance that coincided with the World Health Organization’s Antibiotic Awareness Week. Two of the three parts deal heavily with antibiotics used in food animals plus a link is provided to a report from last summer on ground beef. The report basically rehashes CR’s field test findings on meat products over the last three years.
A third report elicits legitimate scientific concern. A study published in The Lancet says a gene has been identified in China that allows a range of bacteria to become resistant to polymyxins — described as the last fully functional class of antibiotics. The researchers say it is likely resistance emerged after the antibiotic known as “colistin” was overused in farm animals. An article at the UK’s The Guardian says colistin is the “last resort for infections caused by multidrug-resistant gram-negative bacteria such as E. coli.”
“This is certainly an unsettling finding,” says University of Minnesota food animal antimicrobial expert Dr. Peter Davies. “The genuine concern here relates to likely unregulated use in China, but is not of direct concern to the U.S. situation.”
While colistin products are widely available for food animals in most EU countries, Davies says he knows of only one that is licensed for use in the U.S. and is unsure if it is currently marketed.
Developments such as these leave a concerned public wondering if the world is, indeed, on the cusp of a post-antibiotic era, as suggested by the headline at BBC News. At Wired.com, the headline reads, “A once powerful antibiotic goes the way of all flesh” and in postmortem fashion tells the story of how colistin was used in pork production after Chinese authorities determined it was too toxic for human use.
Justifying the use of antibiotics in agriculture is a difficult sell in a society that is increasingly concerned about the legitimate problem of antibiotic resistance. But there is justification.
In a news release on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ study, lead author Dr. Jerome Paulson says, “Like humans, farm animals should receive appropriate antibiotics for bacterial infections.” He goes on to encourage the appropriate use of antibiotics by doctors and urges parents to not ask for antibiotics to treat a child’s cold or a viral illness.
The North American Meat Institute issued a news release saying the CR report perpetuates myths and took the organization to task for its loose use of the term “superbugs.” The Pork Network earlier this month staged a webinar on the subject — “Responsible antibiotic use: Perspectives from the Food Chain.” It can be viewed here. At his Agriculture Proud website, farm advocate Ryan Goodman responded to a visitor’s question about antibiotics in beef cattle by posting an FAQ from South Dakota State University.
Antibiotic resistance is a serious public health concern that everyone needs to take seriously. Food producers should openly acknowledge that animal antibiotics need to be used responsibly to minimize agriculture’s contribution to antibiotic resistance.
It’s a fact that leading animal health companies recognize the concern about antibiotic resistance and are now making antibiotics available only for treatment and prevention of disease — not growth promotion. In the near future, antibiotics important to human medicine will only be available under a Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), essentially a prescription from a veterinarian.
But, as acknowledged by the AAP’s Paulson, preventing disease and treating sick animals by using antibiotics is the ethical thing to do. When an animal is sick with a bacterial infection, it deserves antibiotic treatment. Veterinarians take an oath to protect human and animal health, and antibiotics are a tool that helps them honor that obligation. The wise use of antibiotics makes food safer by helping keep animals healthy and studies show this reduces bacteria entering the food supply.
The discovery and use of antibiotics represents one of the greatest human and veterinary medical advances in history. The emergence of pathogens that are resistant to multiple antibiotics is something that everybody should respect, investigate and respond to appropriately.