The recent release of the Food and Drug Administration’s report on antibiotic sales brought a round of calls from certain advocacy groups to ban the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. These advocates remind me of another crowd: the anti-vaccination movement. Both the groups pushing for an antibiotic-free animal agriculture and the “anti-vaxxers” ignore established science on their respective issues in a way that leads to diminished human and animal welfare. http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-farmer-cows-image26818934We certainly should have a debate about the judicious use of antibiotics in agriculture, but jumping to an outright ban defies science and common sense, will cause more animal suffering, and may have adverse effects on public health. While those pushing for an outright ban are on the fringe, concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria in agriculture are starting to hit the mainstream. In the American Humane Association’s 2014 Humane Heartland Farm Animal Welfare Survey, more than half of the respondents indicated that they seek out food labeled “Antibiotic Free,” second only behind “Humanely Raised.” Opponents of antibiotics frequently point to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that, every year, at least 2 million Americans become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Reports indicate that the most resistant infections reside in human hospital settings. However, there is no evidence that antibiotics used in animal agriculture have decreased the effectiveness of antibiotics in humans. According to Dr. Stephanie Doores of Pennsylvania State University, “People would be more likely to die from a bee sting than for their antibiotic treatment to fail because of macrolide-resistant bacteria in meat or poultry.” A look across the world to Denmark is also instructive. Despite a complete ban on antibiotic use for growth promotion instituted in 2000, there is very little evidence that it led to any positive impacts on human health or a decline in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In fact, it has resulted in a significant increase in the therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals due to animals getting sick. Science — and common sense — tell us that antibiotics can and do help improve well-being, decrease mortality rates of farm animals, and prevent unnecessary suffering. Just as they do when given to a child with strep throat, antibiotics relieve the pain and distress of sick animals while helping them to recover. One of the Five Freedoms upon which the American Humane Certified program is based is the freedom “from pain, injury and disease.” An outright ban would be inhumane to sick animals and would violate one of the Five Freedoms that serve as the internationally accepted social contract with animals. Additionally, what is not often discussed is that use of antibiotics in farm animals provides for a safer food supply, and that FDA has long required withdrawal periods for such use. As noted by Dr. Christine Hoang, assistant director of the American Veterinary Medical Association, in her 2010 testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Health: “For food animals, drugs additionally contribute to the public health by mitigating disease and thereby reducing the numbers of bacteria entering the food supply. Studies show that a reduction in the incidence of food animal illness will reduce bacterial contamination on meat, thereby reducing the risk of human illness.” Because it is an issue of concern for the public, antibiotic use in agriculture demands a healthy and robust discussion. But veterinarians, public health professionals and scientists should be determining what is the appropriate use of antibiotics. And such a discussion needs to include outcomes for the sick animal as it’s simply not humane to leave an animal to suffer needlessly. Recent moves by Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s demonstrate that the issue is becoming more urgent. Let’s set aside the scare tactics and pressure campaigns and have a real, honest conversation about safe and proper antibiotic use that’s driven by science. Agriculture, researchers and humane organizations must work together to educate the public and food companies about proper antibiotic use or else the dialogue will be led by misinformation. In working together, we can develop policies that improve animal health and welfare, safeguard our abundant food supply, and protect public health. Better science is needed to advance a better understanding of human and animal health and define what it is to be humane.

  • mem_somerville

    I wish you guys would cover that the anti-vaxxers want to remove vaccines from organic approval: http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_31368.cfm This would be very bad for animals.

  • Do no equate those who want to decrease the use of antibiotics in agriculture with “anti-vaxxers”. That’s disingenuous, and frankly, rather despicable. Any thinking person should understand the label is for those not vaccinating their kids against communicable diseases, NOT those concerned about the increasing antibiotic-resistant diseases.

    As for your assertion about Denmark, the actual facts seriously undermines your statement…and your credibility.

    http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/122-a160/

    You cherry pick who you quote, your writing is filled with erroneous statements…good lord this is on of the worst pieces to appear on FSN in the longest time.

    • pawpaw

      Thanks for this reference Shelley, excellent reading that refutes multiple claims in this opinion piece, with primary sources cited.
      As a scientist and an animal farmer, I too am surprised this article ignores the elephant in the room: that the vast majority of antibiotic use in this country is in feed to promote animal growth. Any ‘serious conversation’ about this topic includes antibiotics in feed. Just returned from my ag store, where our choices are often limited in finding antibiotic-free feed.
      From what we are learning of human and animal microbiomes, and that a course of antibiotics have been likened to “throwing a bomb” into a healthy gut-flora ecosystem, seems imprudent to defend antibiotics in feed as “animal welfare”.

      If subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics in feed such a good idea, why not include antibiotics in our childrens’ breakfast cereals or multivitamins, especially children on the low end of average growth curves?

      As I’ve written here before, am concerned that restricting antibiotic use to only a vet would limit my ability to treat disease and injury on my farm, even when under a vet’s direction by phone. If Ms. Ganzert and her organization really want to keep antibiotics available and effective for our animals by this debate: stop treating antibiotics like vitamins and minerals, through the routine inclusion in feeds.

  • You do realize, I hope, that the ban in Denmark was not for therapeutic use of antibiotics, which is still allowed.

    But then, conflating the two is just another piece on the misinformation pile in this writing.

    • Mark Caponigro

      Right. Also it seems difficult to study this kind of public-health issue in so small a country as Denmark, surrounded as it is by many other countries, their populations and food products moving across borders all the time.

  • MN Born

    I agree there needs to be an honest discussion, no doubt. I also think the worst case scenario response is because the public perceives that growth and profit are put ahead of almost all other variables in the raising of animals for food slaughter. Antibiotic use is the tip of the iceberg in an argument about whether the whole system is wrong. Do you need antibiotic use on the scale that exists if you eliminate the diet and conditions common in CAFOs and the similar? And the fork voting for antibiotic-free food seems a natural step from the heavy campaigning in the doctor’s office to reduce our own antibiotic use. I’m not sure that the anti- side of the camp is relying on unsound science or science at all. Sometimes you just want things different because they can be.

  • MaryFinelli

    If animals weren’t so intensively bred for production traits at the expense of their immune systems, jammed together and subjected to other extremely stressful conditions and treatment, fed inappropriate and unwholesome food, etc., etc., etc., there wouldn’t be the need for such immense amounts of antibiotics.

    Industry is desperately trying to keep animals alive for the relatively very short time it takes to get their bodies big enough to market, or for the year/few years it takes until their bodies are so exhausted that they are no longer considered to be adequately productive.

    Healthy animals don’t need continuous dosing with drugs. It is an industry-imposed problem that is detrimental to everyone, and most especially to the animal victims. Government officials need the guts and integrity to stand up and stop it. If they were genuinely acting in the best interests of the public, that’s what they would do.

  • Steven Roach

    Having worked on antibiotic policy in the advocacy community for well over 10 years, I am unaware of any major advocacy organization working in this area that is calling for a ban on the use of all antibiotics in animal agriculture. There is pretty much uniform recognition that it is appropriate to treat sick animals. There is some discussion about identifying specific antibiotics (mainly antibiotics of last resort for treating resistant infections in humans) that should not be used in food animals but no support for an across the board ban. By far, the most common position is that antibiotics in classes used in human medicine should not be used on a routine basis in food animal production. We support having a serious conversation but to do so requires actually acknowledging what the people you are trying to talk with are saying.

  • Andre Williamson

    “Let’s set aside the scare tactics and pressure campaigns and have a real, honest conversation about safe and proper antibiotic use that’s driven by science.”

    Like calling those who disagree “anti-vaxxers”?

    We should put aside the Orwellian double-speak.

    Antibiotic use leads to resistance. THAT is basic, established science. The conversation should go from there. What we need to determine is what are the risks of antibiotic resistance, and what limits, if any, should be placed on which antibiotics.

    Without data, though, it’s hard to have anything but a shouting match. If I recall correctly, the government has called for measuring these things, but nothing has come of it.

    • pawpaw

      Andre,
      May I suggest reading the paper at the link Shelley provides, and references therein. There you will find data and measurements.

      • Andre

        That’s Danmap. I’m referring to a lack of data in the US.

  • LogicPolice

    Robin, I am afraid you missed the boat with this piece. As you are a member of AHA, I can understand your leanings toward, “….. antibiotics can and do help improve well-being, decrease mortality… “. I can of course agree with you, animal husbandry should include healing the sick, doing no harm. But you cannot believe that feeding antibiotics for rapid growth in CAFOs is the same thing as a farmer treating an infected hoof or pink eye. By the way, as anitbiotics do nothing to relieve pain your Five Freedoms agrument falls a little flat. In fact I would imagine being forced to grow 3 to 6 times faster and heavier than nature intended would cause a great deal of pain indeed.

    • oldcowvet

      So treating pinkeye does nothing to relieve pain?

      • LogicPolice

        Cowvet , with respect, that isn’t what I am saying at all.

        • oldcowvet

          With respect, antibiotics do relieve conditions that cause pain. I do agree we need a serious discussion on and use . This piece does have some validity, though, just read some of the more outrageous comments that swirl around this subject and the need for level headed dialogue.

          • Andre

            You really need to read LP’s post again. You’ve got things backwards.

  • Veterinary Science

    As a scientist who has worked on this issue for over a decade, I disagree with some comments and believe Robin did a fairly objective job. This issue is extremely complex. Although Denmark is often used as an ideal model, the reality is although their bans have been in effect for over 10 years, “in 2011, more Danes became infected with MRSA bacteria, and the number was the highest in over 25 years. The increase was primarily seen in otherwise healthy people without any hospital relation. Although the number of MRSA positive pig herds is on a par with the level seen in 2010, significantly more pigs at slaughter were found to be infected with the so-called pig MRSA, and the number of people infected with pig MRSA is increasing.” This issue means there is a lot we do not understand regarding antibiotic resistance, and several scientist theorized, as Robin stated above, that the cause of this increase was related to a greater need to treat sick animals in Denmark because their husbandry practices were insufficient to limit disease. Also some below mischaracterized some of the goals of those abroad, some of these goals are too completely eliminate of all uses of antibiotics including prophylaxis except for narrowly defined treatment options making veterinary decisions regulatory rather than medically based . Prophylactic treatments are done all the time, for example if we travel abroad we may take antibiotics or antimalarial medications or have certain vaccines related to the country we are traveling. When we transport animals we may need to take similar precautions. The title is extremely appropriate in this article as we need to remain objective and understand how antibiotics are used in agriculture and make decisions based in science.

  • Veterinary Science

    FYI from Denmark’s Leading New agency showing that 2011 data presented early was not a “one off” year, this is a complex problem even for one of the most heaviest regulated countries not a sound bite issue

    Up to 12,000 infected with MRSA in Denmark: experts

    Published: 25 Aug 2014 09:35 GMT+02:00

    “Simple mathematics” means that human deaths will result from an increase in the
    number of people infected with the antibiotic-resistant bacteria, two leading
    experts have warned.

    As many as 12,000 people in Denmark are infected with the
    antibiotic-resistant MRSA without knowing it, two leading MRSA experts have
    calculated.

    Henrik Westh, the head of the Capital Region’s MRSA research centre, and Hans Jørn Kolmos, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Southern Denmark, studied the results from Denmark’s multi-resistant bacteria monitoring programme and statistics from the Danish State Serum Institute (SSI) and concluded that between 6,000-12,000 people are infected with MRSA CC398, a variant that can be transmitted from livestock to humans.

    CC398 has seen a massive increase in Denmark over the past seven years. According to SSI, the CC398 variant only accounted for two percent of all MRSA cases in 2007 but this year it is up to 35 percent. In July alone, 105 people were infected with MRSA – the highest monthly total ever.

    Westh and Kolmos warn that human death resulting from infection is a certainty.

    “It is naive to expect anything else. It is simple mathematics when so many people are infected,” Westh told Politiken.

    “The sneaky thing about the bacteria is that you can carry it without having the faintest idea. If you are otherwise healthy, you will show no symptoms but still could infect others who are more susceptible. They could become seriously ill or, in the worst case scenario, die,” Kolmos told Politiken.

    The two researchers are calling for Denmark to implement stricter controls in the pig production industry and accuse the Danish Food and Veterinary Administration (Fødevarestyrelsen) and the Danish Health and Medicine Authority (Sundhedsstyrelsen) of not doing enough.

    “Both Fødevarestyrelsen and Sundhedsstyrelsen have massively failed in this instance. They, for one reason or another, have neglected the problem from the start and one is tempted to ask if the authorities are more loyal to the pig industry than to the people who risk becoming ill and even dying from swine MRSA,” Kolmos said.

    Authorities rejected the accusations.

    “We are worried about the increase we are seeing in the number of infections and therefore we are doing what we can to keep the bacteria out of hospitals,” Sundhedsstyrelsen spokesman Søren Brostrøm told Politiken.

    Food and Agriculture Minister Dan Jørgensen – who criticised Fødevarestyrelsen for its handling of the current listeria outbreak – told the newspaper that he is willing to do more in the area.

    “Even though we are trying to do something to both limit infections and limit the use of antibiotics [in pigs], we still need to know more about how MRSA spreads from swine. When we know what works, I’m ready to do whatever is necessary,” he said.

    In July, Norway’s largest retailer said it was considering putting a stop to all pork imports from Denmark due to MRSA fears.