Ensuring the safety, health and overall well-being of animals raised for food is an ethical obligation, but since the retail and restaurant industries are pushing for more products with the label “no antibiotics ever” or “raised without antibiotics,” many across the livestock and poultry industry are concerned the RWA label is taking precedence over animal health and welfare.
While many in the food service industry may perceive these labels mean higher welfare standards, that may not always be the case.
“Simply going to ‘no antibiotics ever’ doesn’t necessarily put animal health at the forefront,” said Randall Singer, a veterinarian and professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota, in a recent interview with PHT Media, which produces pighealthtoday.com. “We really should be thinking about how to keep these animals healthy [in terms of] major disease challenges and the tools we have.”
To better understand the balance of removing antibiotics from the food-animal supply chain on animal health, food safety, customer demand and cost of food production, Singer recently led a research study, “Potential impacts of no antibiotics ever/raised without antibiotics production on animal health and welfare,” with producers and veterinarians from across the food-supply chain. The objective of the project was to survey the veterinarians and producers in animal agriculture about their experiences with and opinions of raising RWA animals.
The survey, open from Feb. 15 to March 23, 2018, was designed with Qualtrics surveys and was disseminated through various professional livestock organizations and commodity groups.
RWA: To be or not to be?
The research team received 148 completed responses from participants in the swine industry.
Most respondents were practicing veterinarians (37.6%) and producers (47.3%). Just over half of the respondents are currently working with (33.8%) or have previously worked with (20.3%) swine being raised without antibiotics (RWA respondents). The remaining respondents (46.0%) had never worked with swine raised without antibiotics (conventional respondents).
Thirty of the 80 RWA respondents (37.5%) reported they were no longer working in RWA systems, many citing animal health and welfare challenges as a reason they stopped working with this type of production. About a quarter of the RWA respondents no longer working in RWA systems cited insufficient market support.
Asked why they decided to work with swine where the use of antibiotics was not allowed, most RWA respondents said it was market-driven, including the need to fulfill a client or customer request (69.3%), to increase sale price of animals or product (54.7%), and to gain market entry into a retail program (40.0%). When asked why they decided not to work with swine where the use of antibiotics was not allowed, conventional respondents said they had concerns about negative impacts to animal health and welfare (76.1%), and that they were already raising animals in a responsible use program (73.1%).
The majority of respondents from both sides were part of the PQA Plus/Common Swine Industry Audit (79.7% of RWA respondents and 92.5% of conventional respondents), while a smaller number (23% of RWA respondents and 25.4% of conventional respondents) were part of a privately owned or facilitated animal welfare program.
Post-weaning hemolytic E. coli and Actinobacillus suis, Haemophilus parasuis and Streptococcus suis were ranked as the most problematic disease challenges for RWA and conventional. Similar disease challenges were observed when stratified by role (veterinarian and producer). Respiratory system disorders were by far the most problematic health and welfare disorder when raising swine in both RWA and conventional programs. Digestive system disorders were ranked second by both groups, although with less frequency.
The majority of respondents in both RWA and conventional systems believe that there are effective tools (i.e., vaccine, feed and water additive, management) to prevent post-weaning hemolytic E. coli, one of the top two most challenging diseases in both production types. However, the majority of RWA and conventional respondents did not believe there were effective tools to manage A. suis, H. parasuis and S. suis, which accounted for the other most challenging set of diseases in both production systems.
Both groups identified a broad range of production practices that need to be modified when moving from conventional to RWA production systems. The majority of respondents identified weaning age, biosecurity, space and personnel as requiring changes when moving to raising swine without the use of antibiotics (greater than 60% for both groups across all changes).
Less than a quarter of respondents from both groups thought that bedding needed to be changed when switching to raising swine without the use of antibiotics.
Further stratification of RWA respondents revealed agreement between practicing veterinarians and producers that weaning age, biosecurity, space and personnel were the most common changes needed when switching to RWA production (greater than 60% for both groups across all changes, except for space in RWA producers).
Impacts on production
The majority of both RWA and conventional respondents believed that feed efficiency (greater than 50% across groups), morbidity and mortality (greater than 70% across groups), and age at slaughter (greater than 60% across groups) was or would be negatively impacted when switching to raising swine without the use of antibiotics. The majority of respondents in both RWA and conventional groups also thought that weight at slaughter would either not change or would be decreased when switching to raising swine without the use of antibiotics. Although the majority of respondents from both groups indicated that all of these factors would be negatively impacted by switching to RWA systems, the proportion of conventional respondents holding this view was greater than the proportion of RWA respondents across all categories.
Both RWA and conventional veterinarians were more likely than producers to report that feed efficiency was or would be decreased when switching to raising swine without antibiotics. This was the only response for which there was a statistically significant difference between the veterinarians and producers.
Food safety, animal health
Almost half of RWA respondents (46.7%) believed that raising swine without antibiotics would slightly worsen or significantly worsen food safety, whereas the majority of conventional respondents (56.7%) believed that switching to raising swine without antibiotics would slightly or significantly worsen food safety.
Most RWA (76.0%) and conventional (98.5%) respondents believed that switching to raising swine without antibiotics would slightly or significantly worsen animal health and welfare. However, when stratified by role, a significantly greater number of conventional producers (56.8%), compared to RWA producers, (23.1%) believed that raising swine without antibiotics slightly or significantly worsened animal health and welfare.
The majority of RWA (82.7%) and conventional (80.6%) respondents believed that retailers, restaurants and food service companies perceive raising swine without the use of antibiotics would improve food safety.
Both RWA (74.7%) and conventional (65.7%) respondents also believed that retailers, restaurants and food service companies perceive raising swine without the use of antibiotics would improve animal health and welfare.
Impact on cost, demand
The majority of RWA (86.7%) and conventional (98.5%) respondents believe that raising swine without the use of antibiotics will slightly or significantly increase the cost of production. While not significantly different, when looking at producers stratified by RWA experience, results suggest more conventional producers (97.7%) than RWA producers (76.9%) believed there will be an increased cost associated with raising swine without antibiotics.
Veterinarians from both RWA and conventional systems generally agreed that there will be an increased cost of production. The majority of RWA (94.6%) and conventional (91.0%) respondents believe that raising swine without the use of antibiotics will either have no impact or will slightly increase overall demand for pork by consumers. However, when stratified by role, more conventional producers believed that raising swine without the use of antibiotics will have no benefit on consumer demand for pork overall.
Label versus herd health
Are there times when maintaining the RWA label on a product takes priority over herd health and welfare? More RWA veterinarians (75.8%) than conventional veterinarians (52.6%) believe that there are times that maintaining a raised-without-antibiotics label has priority over herd health and welfare, although the difference was not statistically significant. The majority of RWA producers agreed (52.8%), while conventional producers disagreed (56.8%).
A majority of RWA and conventional respondents believed more auditing is needed for swine raised without antibiotics. A greater number of conventional producers than veterinarians believed that more auditing is needed for swine raised without antibiotics, although the difference was not statistically significant.
In conclusion, across all surveyed livestock groups, the main reason for going RWA was market-driven, “to fulfill a client customer request.” The main concern expressed by conventional respondents for not going RWA was the negative impacts to animal health and welfare, and that they were already in a responsible antibiotic use program.
The researchers also found a vast discrepancy between what the respondents believe and the perception of what the customer/retailer believes. Respondents across all commodities believed RWA worsens animal health and welfare, whereas they believed that the customer perceives health and welfare are significantly improved in RWA programs.
Across all surveyed commodities, respondents were mixed in their opinion regarding the relationship between their own antibiotic use and the ability to treat animal infections. Many respondents felt that there are times when the RWA label takes priority over animal health and welfare.
Both groups of respondents generally felt that there was a need for increased auditing of animal health and welfare in RWA systems.
As Singer concluded in his interview with PHT Media on the survey, the issue is not black and white, and the U.S. needs to “find that balance — where the entire system of animal production, from hatch or birth to slaughter, is raising animals responsibly and using antibiotics responsibly, incorporating disease prevention techniques other than antibiotics whenever possible, and using antibiotics where appropriate and as approved by the FDA.”
Antibiotic usage: ‘Reduce’ and ‘responsible’ are not synonymous
Just as the label “raised without antibiotics” can take on different connotations with different audiences, so can the phrase “reduced antibiotic use.”
In December, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released its report citing a 33% decline in domestic sales and distribution of all medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals between 2016 and 2017, some industry members noted that reduced antibiotic usage is not necessarily synonymous with responsible antibiotic usage.
“I really struggle with any metric of volumes of antimicrobials or antibiotics sold reflecting responsible use, because responsible use is dependent on the herd health and disease dynamics, which are constantly changing,” says Eva Jablonski, a senior technical services veterinarian with Zoetis. “If we have animals today that are sicker than they were two years ago because of reduced use, I don’t believe that is the right thing for the animal. As a veterinarian, I can’t support that.”
Before joining Zoetis in 2015, Jablonski spent nine years in a production practice setting in a 60,000-sow system. Today her role on the Zoetis technical services team is focused on the responsible use of antibiotics.
The veterinarian says she is cautious using the terminology “reduction” when it comes to livestock antibiotic use, because the term can be misleading. For example, there could be a reduction in antibiotic use right now due to the emphasis on eliminating Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae in herds.
“It just makes sense that if you eliminate a bacterium, that we have had in the past and have been challenged with very heavily in finishing, you are going to see a reduction in use,” Jablonski says.
“It is better when it is responsible, and when the pigs are healthy and not challenged. Two years from now, we might have a different pathogen emerge, and our usage may go up to manage the disease,” she says.
For example, the Swine Health Information Center recently released its top 10 bacteria disease matrix. Streptococcus suis was at the top of the list. Jablonski says while the industry has dealt with this bacterium for some time, it’s becoming more prominent, and there are not a lot of effective vaccination programs because the bacteria is so diverse.
One of the best ways to manage Streptococcus suis is with the use of antibiotics.
“If that bacterium is on the rise, we may have to use more antibiotics; but I believe that with veterinary oversight, that can still be the responsible decision given the increased prevalence,” Jablonski says.
Defining responsible use
Responsible antibiotic use also comes down to individual pig care, says Eva Jablonski, a senior technical services veterinarian with Zoetis.
“As we start talking about how to use antibiotics responsibly, a key part of that is to target the individual animal — as opposed to treating an entire barn through the feed or water,” Jablonski says.
By using Zoetis’ Individual Pig Care’s ABC classification system, caregivers can communicate a pig’s condition clearly to managers and veterinarians. An “A” pig would be categorized as an acutely ill pig with a much higher chance to overcome a health challenge, while at the other end of the spectrum, a “C” pig would be labeled as a chronically ill pig, with not much chance of recovery and the likelihood of needing to be culled.
“Individual pig care is really the definition of what responsible antibiotic use is, because you are targeting the animals that need it and also targeting the ones that are ‘A’ pigs, so you can have the best treatment outcomes,” Jablonski says.
Another critical part of using antibiotics responsibly is reviewing the treatment regimen and finding other ways to control disease and pathogens, such as management, gilt strategies and pig flow.
Finally, Jablonski says producers and veterinarians also need to continue to question if an antibiotic truly warranted. Reduced use can be driven by anyone, responsible use should be driven by a veterinarian that understands the specific herd.
“I don’t want producers to feel the pressure ‘I have to reduce — reduce to a point where I am not using any’ because I don’t think that is the best animal welfare situation we want to put ourselves in in the industry,” Jablonski says. “I think we need to make sure we continue to ask the question, why is this needed and when is it not needed.”