Animal agriculture will reach an anniversary on Jan. 1 and there is reason to celebrate.
Nearly two years ago on Jan. 1, 2017, farmers and veterinarians stepped up to change their use of medically important antibiotics, which are antibiotics important to human medicine. Farmers and veterinarians described the changes as part of their commitment to responsible use.
The results of that effort are in and show clear impact. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that sales of all medically important antibiotics decreased 33 percent between 2016 and 2017.
“These reductions are an indication that our ongoing efforts to support antimicrobial stewardship are having a significant impact,” said Scott Gottlieb, FDA Commissioner.
Through a joint effort, farmers, ranchers, veterinarians and animal health companies committed to use medically important antibiotics only as necessary to prevent animal suffering. And the dramatic drop in sales of medically important antibiotics indicates they followed through on that pledge.
The sales data is evidence that farmers and ranchers share the concern about antibiotic resistance. They also care about the welfare of their animals. Farmers and veterinarians recognize they have an ethical obligation to treat sick animals, and antibiotics are an important tool – among many in their toolboxes – to protect animal health and prevent suffering.
More Than Window Dressing
When the agriculture and animal health communities made their commitment several years ago, critics dismissed it as window dressing and predicted it would have minimal impact. The recent sales report from the FDA is clear evidence otherwise.
The report presents an ideal opportunity for reflection by the food system. It shows that collaboration to find sensible solutions can make a real difference, and that extreme positions are unnecessary. In this case, a tool to prevent animal suffering is continuing to be used responsibly by many farmers and veterinarians, and at the same time the overall use of the most critical types of this tool has dramatically declined.
Why is this important? Consider the range of policies instituted by food processors and retailers regarding antibiotic use.
Those who instituted a complete prohibition on the use of antibiotics on farms limited the ability of farmers and veterinarians to address animal suffering, which may have led to the unintended consequence of increased animal suffering.
Meanwhile, retailers and processors who rejected the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and/or restricted or prohibited the use of medically important antibiotics allowed farmers and veterinarians to continue responsible use of other antibiotics to treat sickness and prevent suffering.
A measured approach such as this aligns with the commitments made by the agriculture and animal health communities, which led to a dramatic reduction in the sale of medically important antibiotics for agricultural uses. In other words, it had a big impact without making it more challenging for farmers and veterinarians to protect animal health.
Engage with Values
As antibiotic use in animals continues to be a concern among consumers, it’s important for those involved with animal agriculture and the food system overall to highlight their values, backed by the facts: a commitment to the responsible use of antibiotics led to a marked decline in the use of medically important antibiotics. This was achieved voluntarily, while allowing antibiotics to be used when needed to protect animal health. Antibiotics are used in animals for the same reason they are used in people: to treat disease and prevent animal suffering. Farmers and veterinarians have demonstrated their commitment to responsible use. Retaining their ability to use antibiotics when needed is key to animal welfare.
The conversation about reduced use invites another conversation about an issue of concern to consumers: antibiotics in meat. Those in agriculture must take the time to explain the multiple safeguards in place to ensure that all meat sold to consumers is safe. Farmers are required by law to abide by a withdrawal period to ensure antibiotics administered to animals have cleared their systems before processing. Routine testing provides another layer of assurance that meat is safe.
Fundamentally, antibiotics play a role in preventing animal sickness and suffering, which is a goal shared by farmers and veterinarians, restaurants and retailers, as well as consumers.