The Food and Drug Administration has a new voluntary program to phase out certain antibiotics labeled for growth promotion in production animals. The agency believes this the fastest and most efficient way to reduce the use of antibiotics in the food animal industries.
The underlying issue is that exposure to low-level antibiotics in livestock feed has the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria in farm animals and ultimately people. Giving farm animals antibiotics at sub-therapeutic levels can improve their health, which can lead to increased weight gains and decrease the cost of production. The issue of antibiotic resistance is very complex and remains difficult to pinpoint to a single source.
What happens on the farm will ultimately affect every person even if he or she chooses not to consume animal product. This change in farm animal production will put the use of important antibiotics under control of veterinarians instead of the animal feed manufacturers. The drugs used in farm animals should be by "prescription only" of a licensed veterinary professional.
The control of drug resistant bacteria is not as simple as restricting antibiotics as feed additives. The proper use of antibiotics in both humans and animals is also critical to prevent drug-resistant bacteria. Physicians are often pressured for a prescription for situations in which an antibiotic is unnecessary, such as in the case of a child with a virus.
Additionally, antibiotics are not always taken as directed for both the frequency and duration as prescribed. There are times when an antibiotic prescription is written for humans or animals as an unnecessary precaution. Biology is such that bacteria will evolve and become naturally resistant to drugs that are currently being used.
Curtailing the use of some antibiotics is not a simple solution. In a recent study from Denmark, more antibiotics were used after medicated feed was discontinued. Without the antibiotics in the feed to prevent certain types of disease, more animals became ill and the use of therapeutic antibiotics increased.
In some foreign countries, people can obtain powerful antibiotics without a prescription. In this country, feed stores have antibiotics available for animals without veterinary supervision. It is no wonder that we have a problem with bacterial mutations and antibiotic resistance.
I personally agree that some antibiotics used in feed for growth promotion should be curtailed. I was told by a food scientist anecdotally that originally the cultures from growing antibiotics were considered byproducts and were useful as feed amendments. When used in feeds, they promoted weight gain in farm animals. The cultures contained many nutrients along with antibiotics and their use continued.
The demands on food producers are intense. Farmers have high equipment and supply costs. Agriculture in the United States produces a high-quality product at a competitive price. New trends should balance humane treatment of animals, high food safety and reasonable costs of production.
Today, the United States has the most affordable food supply in the world. At some point, the public will have to embrace the idea that certain changes will add to the cost of quality food and the public will have to pay a higher price for food.
Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you'd like addressed in Pet Points, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name and municipality or neighborhood.