The consumer advocacy groups that went to court this week in an attempt to take non-therapeutic antibiotics away from animal agriculture ignored science, failed to cite any data and did not bring any new information to the table, says Ron Phillips of the Coalition for Animal Health.

“We’ve consistently said that policy decisions about the use of antibiotics in animals should be made on the basis of careful scientific risk assessment.  Several risk assessments measuring the risk of various antibiotic compounds used in animal agriculture have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and they uniformly find the risk to public health to be vanishingly small,” Phillips told Food Safety News.  “In one example, the risk of a human antibiotic treatment failure due to the use of an antibiotic in animals was less than that of dying from a bee sting.”

“Antibiotics used to keep food animals healthy have been approved by FDA as safe and effective,” Phillips says.  “Recent scientific studies have documented the benefits of carefully using antibiotics to keep food animals healthy, because healthy animals produce safer meat products.”

In the half century that low doses of antibiotics have been used to spur animal growth, farming group now see the practice as necessary for animal health and the safety of food.  The Coalition for Animal Health thinks removing growth-promoting antibiotics would be a big mistake.

Phillips’ Animal Health Institute (AHI) is at the center of the ag coalition that has been quietly working to counter the consumer/environmental activist groups — National Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen and the Union of Concerned Scientists — that filed this week’s federal lawsuit to get the FDA to withdraw approval for the non-therapeutic use of penicillin and tetracyclines in animals.

Involved in the lobbying effort are the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Feed Industry Association, American Association of Swine Veterinarians, American Meat Institute, American Sheep Industry Association, American Veterinary Medical Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation, United Egg Producers and AHI.

In working on Capitol Hill, they’ve helped prevent passage of Congresswoman Louise Slaughter’s bill to ban antibiotics in animal feed.  They’ve also helped create species-specific industry education programs like the National Pork Board “Take Care — Use Antimicrobials Responsibly” program and beef industry’s Quality Assurance program. They’ve also supported USDA’s Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank (FARAD) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Get Smart: Know When Antimicrobials Work on the Farm” program.

The straight line that its opposition draws between antibiotics used in animal feed and water, to resistance to these same drugs in treating humans, just isn’t accepted by the ag coalition.  Better, they say, to “form layers of protection to ensure we can use antibiotics to keep animals healthy without harming public health.”

They’ve told Congress this “layers of protection” approach for animal drugs includes stringent approval, tracking antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food safety monitoring and surveillance, responsible use programs, and more emphasis on pathogen reduction.

Denmark, which has an Iowa-size hog herd, has banned antibiotics in animal feed since 2000.  On the AHI website, Phillips tracks the results, saying antibiotic resistance in humans has hardly changed, while death and disease among animals has gone up.

Last year, after animal ag interests were upset about the treatment they got from a CBS news series and former anchor Katie Couric, a Gilbert, AZ veterinarian tried to put the risk into perspective.

“For a person to have an antibiotic treatment failure due to acquiring a foodborne bacterial disease from eating, for example, pork,” he said, “the following things would have to happen: 

  • “The antibiotic would be used in the animal.
  •  “The animal would have to develop a resistant bacterial strain.
  • “The resistant strain would have to survive through food processing and handling
  • “The resistant strain would have to transfer to the human.
  • “The resistant strain would have to colonize.
  • “The resistant strain would have to cause a disease.
  • “The antibiotic treatment would have to fail.

“What is the probability of a person experiencing treatment failure to to antibiotic use in swine?”

Dr. Alyn M. McClure, the Gilbert DVM quoted here, says the odds of a person acquiring resistant Campylobacter from macrolide-treated swine, resulting in treatment failure, are 1 in 53 million.

Dr. McClure says your odds of getting struck by lightning are 1 in 550,000; dying from a bee sting are 1 in 6 million; and dying from a dog bite, 1 in 18 million.