Antibiotic use: The debate continues


ROCK SPRINGS, Pa. — One Penn State researcher is convinced that misuse of antibiotics in animal herds is more of a problem than subtherapeutic use on farms.

David Wolfgang, Penn State Department of veterinary and biomedical sciences, spoke at Ag Progress Days Aug. 17 about the debate concerning the use of antibiotics in flocks and herds.

Wolfgang said the average cost to develop a veterinary antibiotic is $12 million, which makes it a very expensive undertaking and underscores why it is so important to make sure they are being used properly.

Three reasons

There are three reasons why farmers use antibiotics in food animals: fighting disease, preventing disease and promoting growth. The biggest use is for therapeutic use in combating disease.

Wolfgang said research shows what many already know — there is overuse and misuse in both human and veterinary antibiotics.

He said the biggest problem with veterinary medications is the cost associated with the use of them in an animal. Wolfgang said farmers lose more money than the consumer realizes because of the use of antibiotics. They lose twice if the animal is a milk producer, because the milk has to be thrown out and the cost of the medicine.

Wolfgang said this sometimes forces farmers to stop using the antibiotics before finishing the prescribed course of treatment, which means the bacteria can eventually develop a resistance to the bacteria.

Another faulty practice Wolfgang has witnessed is the farmer giving an animal leftover medication from another cow.

Subthereapeutic use

Wolfgang also touched on the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics in herds. He described the process as a low dose of antibiotics in food or water given to the animals to prevent a disease outbreak.

He said his research has shown that if you use subtherapeutic antibiotics, then the herd doesn’t use nearly as much antibiotics for therapeutic use, meaning the disease risk is lower.

“It’s very unusual for people to get sick in the United States on U.S.-raised foods,” Wolfgang said.

However, he pointed out, countries like Mexico don’t have the same regulations and that can create problems.

He also said there are certain antibiotics that can be used in horses, but not in cattle, and that can also create problems because horse meat is very popular in Mexico, so someone visiting that country can get sick if they don’t know where their meat came from or what it may really be.

Denmark is one nation that has banned subtherapeutic antibiotic use. Wolfgang said, however, they have a higher mortality rate in their hog production, especially during weaning.

In addition, research shows a higher residue in the meat in Denmark herds using antibiotics for therapeutic use (meaning just using the drugs when an illness breaks out).

“Research shows intervening early with antibiotics often keeps the entire herd safe and healthy,” Wolfgang said.

Growth promotion

He said the use of antibiotics for growth promotion began in the 1950s and has since been widely debated.

Wolfgang said there are environmental costs to consider if farmers don’t use them. He said it would require 25-60 more million acres of land to raise our food supply without the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. He said that an average organic broiler takes about 87 days to grow. With a conventional broiler, it takes 40. The environment is impacted because that is twice the amount of fertilizer being added to the ground from the waste of the broiler.

But what can’t be stressed enough about human or animal antibiotics, Wolfgang said, is that they need to be used smarter.

He said farmers must follow the course of action prescribed by a veterinarian, and that finish the prescription, as well.

Bottom line, Wolfgang said, and based on evidence, using the antibiotics is smarter than banning them entirely.


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