After reading Alan Guebert’s column (“Livestock Antibiotics pits Doctors against Farmers and Economics” Nov. 1, 2001), one would believe the root of the antibiotic resistance issue lies solely with the use of antibiotics within livestock and poultry production. This is simply not so.
Most scientists agree the increase of bacterial resistance to antibiotics in humans is largely the result of over-reliance on antibiotics in human medicine. According to the Center for Disease Control, humans typically consume 235 million doses of antibiotics annually. It is estimated that 20 percent to 50 percent of that use is unnecessary.
The biggest factor in antibiotic-resistant bacteria is human doctors, who prescribe antibiotics for nonbacterial ailments that antibiotics cannot cure, such as flu viruses and allergies. Every medical professional knows rapidly reproducing bacteria will inevitably develop resistance to every drug.
Editorials and similar articles have led many consumers to believe farm animals take far more antibiotics than humans, and that there is no concern by farmers for the use of antibiotics in farm animals. This, too, is simply not so.
Of all antibiotics used in the United States, only 6.1 percent are used for growth promotion in food-producing animals, and the average amount of antibiotics used in medicated feed is less than 2 ounces per ton of feed.
Antibiotics for animals enter the market only after extensive data has been presented to the Food and Drug Administration to demonstrate their safety. If a new product is intended for use in food-producing animals, it must be tested for safety to human consumers, and the edible animal products must be free of unsafe drug residues.
Denmark is a good example that the ban on antibiotics does not lead to positive results for human or farm animal health. Danish consumers are more than five times likely to get sick from campylobacter bacteria as Americans, and more than twice as likely to get a salmonella infection. There’s been no documented improvement in Denmark’s antibiotic resistance picture since the ban.
Meanwhile, more Danish hogs and poultry are getting sick. Therapeutic use of antibiotics in Danish poultry houses has increased 30 percent since they stopped antibiotic use in feeds.
The argument to eliminate certain uses of these drugs in animals appears persuasive. However, the argument excludes examination of why antibiotics are used on the farm. Antibiotics are essential tools in the disease-management regimen in food animals.
When we ask the question, “What if we don’t restrict antibiotic use,” we need also answer the question, “What if we do?”
The fact this question is so difficult to answer makes it worth asking: Should a significant alteration in the care of animals intended for human consumption be made in the absence of solid evidence for making the change?
Making a risk decision in one area may result in greater risk in another. Balance – viewing the system as a whole and considering all factors – is critical for safeguarding public health.
There is also widespread agreement that data on antibiotic resistance lack quantity and quality. Sample collection, analysis, and measurement methods are not standardized and information that does exist cannot be pooled.
Surveillance, monitoring, and education to reduce the incidence of food-borne illness are the strategies to apply to managing the issue of resistance. Farmers, veterinarians, manufacturers and regulators need more, better, and faster information, and injudicious use can only be controlled by an aggressive program of education.
But most importantly is the need for partnership and cooperation between the public and private sectors. This would include journalists and columnists, such as Mr. Guebert, who should strive to present scientifically-based and balanced editorials regarding this issue, not one-sided viewpoints that create inaccurate perceptions.
(The author is executive director of the Ohio Livestock Coalition.)