Antibiotic Use in Perspective

The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.

With all the negative publicity the animal agriculture industry is forced to endure regarding the use of antibiotics, it’s gratifying to find groups that provide reason and truth instead of rhetoric.

One such source is The Center for Accountability in Science. On its website, visitors can take a quiz to test their knowledge on the role of antibiotics in animal and human health. The five questions get to the heart of the matter on the most important facts consumers should know about antibiotics. Here’s one of them:

“The primary driver of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans is the overuse of antibiotics used on farm animals.”

The Answer, Of Course, is False
Here is the accompanying explanation:
“Though farms use a lot of antibiotics, many are never or rarely prescribed to humans. Thirty percent of antibiotics used on farms are from a class called ionophores, which can be deadly to humans and some animals like horses and donkeys. There’s no firm evidence that antibiotic resistance in humans is linked to antibiotic use in farm animals. Though Denmark has very strict limits on antibiotic use in livestock, it says “consumption of meat may currently be considered an insignificant source for the human infections” of food-borne illnesses like E. coli. Three recent studies show that only .27 percent of antibiotic-resistant E.coli infections can be linked to meat, while 99.73 percent of those infections are associated with antibiotic use in humans.”

Many Resources Available
The Center provides excellent resource material on many topics related to food and agriculture, as well as experts to contact for more information. The Center’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. Joseph Perrone, is available for interviews on antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance and continues to write thought-provoking editorials. Perrone served as an adviser to the World Health Organization and was on the WHO's diagnostic steering committee. He wrote about steps to battle superbugs in this article a few years ago in The Hill, explaining the problem of antibiotic resistance, and how the primary problem is in the human population – not animal production. He wrote: “It’s not just over-prescription that poses a problem. Even when antibiotics are prescribed appropriately, too often patients fail to finish the full course of antibiotics once they begin to feel better—or when they’re sick of dealing with the drugs’ side effects such as nausea and vomiting. Failure to finish the full dose means that some of the bacteria may survive. In some cases, the body’s natural defenses will kick in and fight the remaining bacteria. For others, the remaining bacteria can develop resistance to the antibiotic prescribed.”

Perrone is a sensible voice of reason in the wilderness of fake news and false health prophets. Last summer, he authored an opinion piece in the Orange County Register, arguing that “when personal biases underscore public health policy decisions, everyone loses.”

Pressure from Patients
Part of the problem is that when people go to the doctor, they want something – anything – to make them feel better.

“When sick patients head to the doctor and shell out $10 or more in copays, they don’t expect to leave empty-handed,” Perrone says. “Numerous physician surveys show doctors feel pressured by patients to prescribe antibiotics, even when they’re not needed.”

The Food Insight Organization interviewed Terry Dwelle, State Health Officer of the North Dakota Department of Health, who shared perspectives from both public health and agriculture.

Like Perrone, he noted that “inappropriate prescribing” for both human and animals is a key cause of resistance. He says, “Veterinarians and livestock producers continue to take proactive steps to reduce use of antibiotics. Physicians have also made strides, even in the face of pressure from patients to prescribe antibiotics. “

The following examples published in Emerging Infectious Disease, illustrate patient perceptions about antibiotics in patient care:

  • 12% of Americans have recently taken antibiotics
  • 27% believed taking antibiotics during a cold made them better
  • 32% believed taking antibiotics during a cold prevented more serious illness
  • 48% expected antibiotics when seeking medical care with a cold
  • 58% are not aware of the health risks of antibiotics

The International Food Information Council Foundation produces the Food Insights FACTS Network, with the mission of mission of “effectively communicating science-based information on health, nutrition and food safety for the public good.”

Food Insights published a Q&A with Dr. Justin G. Bergeron, who at the time was a resident at the Veterinary Public Health and Preventive Medicine, University of Minnesota Center for Animal Health and Food Safety (CAHFS). In answering a question about what consumers should know about antibiotic use in food animal production, Bergeron said:

“It is important to remember that antibiotics are important for an animal’s health and wellbeing. When humans are sick, we need to take the appropriate medication to get better. Animals have the same need. Animals are not super heroes, they occasionally get sick and hurt through everyday living, just like us. In these instances, it is important to treat animals appropriately including giving them antibiotics, if needed. Then, animals’ milk and meat are withheld from the food system until antibiotics have fully cleared the animals’ systems.”

Perhaps that should be every producer’s “elevator speech” when asked about why you use antibiotics.

The 2018 Food and Health Survey is an interesting study of issues related to health and diet, food components, food production, and food safety. It also explores new topics, such as food insecurity, diets and eating patterns, and how consumers’ diets compare to dietary guidelines and expert recommendations. You can read about how, while the majority of consumers are confident in our food supply, there are still potential safety hazards that impact their choices.

On a positive note, according to the Food Insight website, “this year’s survey showed that consumer confidence in the U.S. food supply grew. In 2018, 68 percent of consumers said they were confident in the food supply, up from 61 percent in 2017.”

You Can Help
It’s important for you, as a producer, to know that both animal and human health experts are diligent in helping disseminate a balanced understanding of the antibiotics issue to consumers.

But it’s not enough. You can help, too.

Every time you talk with your non-farming friends, health-care providers, children’s teachers, or anyone else, share the facts about antibiotic resistance. Begin a dialogue. Help them realize that it’s everyone’s obligation to use antibiotics responsibly to protect and maintain the health of both human and animal populations.