Antibiotics are a necessity in today’s livestock and human health care; however, how and to what extent they are used is evolving as concerns arise about overuse in food animals and drug-resistant bacteria in both man and animal.
Livestock producers have been taking hard, long looks at how antibiotics are used in their herds, responding to consumers’ fears as well as the welfare of the animals under their care. New regulations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (Guidance 209 and 213) will be fully enacted in January 2017, and will eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics on the farm for growth promotion.
Many farmers have already taken this step. These new FDA regulations also strengthen the rules requiring licensed veterinarians to oversee the use of antibiotics on the farm for prevention, control and treatment of disease. The pork industry has been working the past 18 months to help farmers prepare for these new FDA guidelines.
“Antibiotics are a critical tool to treat and prevent disease in both humans and animals,” says John Johnson, chief operating officer of the National Pork Board. “The U.S. pork industry is committed to ensuring responsible use of these medicines in animals to protect their efficacy for both humans and animals. Through a science-based approach, we must all work together to better understand and address the potential impact of antibiotic resistance.”
Working together on this issue was front-and-center at a multi-part panel discussion Wednesday in Washington, D.C., that brought together stakeholders from the hog industry, livestock processing, veterinarians and human health professionals. The NPB sponsored “Resistance: The Antibiotics Challenge, An Atlantic Forum” that was presented by AtlanticLIVE and moderated by Steve Clemons, Washington editor-at-large for The Atlantic.
William Flynn, U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine’s deputy director for science policy, is encouraged by what he sees taking place across the agriculture industry. “There’s a real shift toward looking for solutions,” he says, “and I’m encouraged by seeing positive engagement.” Flynn also says the Veterinary Feed Directive, also going into effect Jan. 1, makes a positive shift in veterinarian oversight. “Veterinary profession realizes the responsibility should be on their shoulders.”
“Antibiotic-resistance is really one of the most serious public health threats of our lifetime,” says Beth Bell, director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Disease at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. She acknowledges that antibiotic-resistance threatens many advancements made in modern medicine over the past few decades, adding that the CDC says antibiotic resistance affects more than two million people in the United States, and antibiotic resistance is responsible for the deaths of more than 23,000 Americans each year.
Overuse of antibiotics is not good anywhere, Bell says, but she is encouraged by the unification of the effort looking into the issue. “We need momentum from different sectors, all working together,” she says. She agrees that veterinarian oversight is a good thing so that livestock can be given “the right medicines at the right dose at the right time.”
Flynn agrees it is imperative to eliminate the misuse of antibiotics. “The first question we should be asking is, should I even be reaching for an antibiotic, or can I look at alternatives? We really need to be critical about antibiotic use.”
Johnson says the NPB has invested in its largest education program ever to educate the 60,000 pig farmers in the United States, to get them beyond compliance and to fully embrace the changes. Over the past 15 years, the NPB has invested $6 million to research antibiotic resistance and Johnson says work continues to research animal health to get beyond reliance on antibiotics.
“There is real substantiated change taking place on the farm in antibiotic stewardship,” Johnson says.
The NPB’s three-point antibiotic stewardship plan focuses on education, research and communication outreach, all the while keeping in mind the NPB’s goal of protecting pig health and promoting food safety.
Christine Daugherty, Tyson Foods vice president of Sustainable Food Production, speaks of the need for transparency in the industry, and to back that up she says Tyson is focusing on transparency in responsible animal care as the company issued its new sustainability report on March 16.
“Antibiotic resistance is a global concern, and we need to work collaboratively together to address this issue,” she says, adding that Tyson has set a goal of eliminating the use of human antibiotics in its broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017. The sustainability report details the company’s limited use of human antibiotics in its chicken business during the company’s last fiscal year.
Transparency is good
Susan Vaughn Grooters, policy analyst with Keep Antibiotics Working coalition, applauds Tyson for its commitment to transparency, as well as the work being done by animal agriculture, the USDA and the FDA to tackle the antibiotic-issue, but acknowledges that more work is still needed. “Transparency draws consumer trust, so it’s in the best interest, it’s just good business,” she says. Keep Antibiotics Working is a coalition of health, consumer, agricultural, environmental, humane and other advocacy groups dedicated to eliminating the inappropriate use of antibiotics in food animals, which they see as a major cause of antibiotic resistance.
Eliminating the use of antibiotics for prevention, Grooters says, would be a big step in the right direction of correcting the misuse of antibiotics, because she feels there may be overlap of antibiotics for different uses. “But this requires more data, more transparency, more veterinarian transparency,” she says.
Colby Ferguson, a producer of show pigs in Maryland, has heard an argument on the accessibility of over-the-counter feed-grade antibiotics, an argument that will become moot come Jan. 1. “I will no longer be able to go the feed store to buy that bag for what I would call routine disease prevention,” he says of the guidelines of the new VFD.
Ferguson says the new treatment world brought on by the VFD will be a veterinarian will prescribe this for 21 days, and “I will only allow you to have so much so that will only go to 21 days, and then you’re off.” Ferguson, who produces about 40 shows pigs, and sells some feeder pigs, says small producers like himself will be hindered by these new rules, mostly to the requirement of a valid veterinary-client-patient relationship. “My veterinarian will become my new best friend, because I only use medically important antibiotics for a very short amount of time,” he says, “and I’m going to have to have that VFD for that short-window antibiotic.”
This greater involvement of veterinarians under the new guidelines will add workload strain on the veterinarians that as, Christine Hoang puts it, “there is a maldistribution of veterinarians; there are geographic areas that do not have as many veterinarians as needed, so we do foresee some concerns moving forward.” Hoang is the assistant director if the division of Animal and Public Health for the American Veterinary Medical Association. She says initiatives are being pursued to address some of the maldistribution areas where larger livestock populations are in a veterinarian void.
With that scenario, a devil’s advocate may suggest it’s easier to eliminate antibiotics all-together from livestock diet. That’s may be easier, but it’s also irresponsible.
Tyson’s Daugherty says that consumers may want animals raised sans antibiotics, but “there will come a time that bad things happen to good animals,” and they will need to be treated. “We have a moral and ethical duty to treat those animals. You would not want to not treat a member of your family” when they get sick.
There still will be that consumer population who do not want any antibiotics whatsoever in their meat product.
“There are choices, and consumers can decide what they want, not saying that one is better for you than another. It’s about choice,” Daugherty says.