Each year, millions of lives are saved by antibiotics, a discovery that has transformed both human and veterinary medicine.
But US officials say the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria has become a threat to public health and the economy.
Because of this, the White House released details of new measures to “detect, prevent and control illness and death related to antibiotic-resistant infections.”
According to CDC, each year, at least two million people in the US become sick, and 23,000 die because of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
President Obama says fighting these bacteria will require a strategic, coordinated and sustained effort that, among other things, will require strengthening surveillance efforts in public health and agriculture when it comes to antibiotic use.
The effort to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria also will include the formation of a task force co-chaired by the Secretaries of Defense, Agriculture and Health and Human Services.
The White House says FDA, in coordination with USDA, will continue to take steps to eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in food-producing animals.
Some members of the food industry have already addressed their use of antibiotics.
Recently, Perdue Foods reached a milestone, announcing it has removed all antibiotics from the company’s chicken hatcheries.
“By no longer using any antibiotics in our hatcheries or any human antibiotics in feed, we’ve reached the point where 95 percent of our chickens never receive any human antibiotics, and the remainder receive them only for a few days when prescribed by a veterinarian,” says Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president of food safety, quality and live operations for Perdue.
The company says it does not use antibiotics for growth promotion in its chicken production and has not done so since 2007.
According to Perdue, the elimination of antibiotics completes the latest part of a 12-year evolution in the company’s approach to antibiotic use which it set out to change in 2002 after growing concern from consumers.
“We recognized the public was concerned about the potential impact of the use of these drugs on their ability to effectively treat humans,” says Stewart-Brown. “We focused first on removing growth-promoting antibiotics.”
In 2005, the company phased out the use of specific medically important antibiotics in its feeds, and by 2007, the company had successfully removed all human antibiotics from its feed. The company says it still uses an animal-only antibiotic to control an intestinal parasite and will continue to use antibiotics to treat and control illness in sick flocks.
Mae We, health attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, harshly criticizes the use of antibiotics in animals saying that routinely dosing them with low levels “creates the perfect environment to breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can escape the farms and contaminate our communities … to prevent us spiraling into a post-antibiotic future, we need to end the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in factory farms now.”
In light of these recent discussions, the American Meat Institute and the American Meat Science Association rolled out a series of five new Meat MythCrusher videos to address what they say are common myths surrounding antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production.
“It is unusual for us to devote so many Meat MythCrusher videos to one topic,” says Janet Riley, AMI senior vice president of public affairs and member services. “But antibiotic use and resistance is such a complex issue and so much confusion exists. We felt it was important to address the myths in a series with several leading experts.”
The videos address inflated numbers of antibiotic use in animals, antibiotics used to cover up unsanitary conditions and their primary use as growth promoters. The videos hold all these assertions to be myths and debunk the idea that animal agriculture is the biggest contributor to antibiotic resistance and Denmark has eliminated resistance by banning the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.
“The Meat MythCrusher program has been a valued resource to help address questions about how meat and poultry products are produced today,” Riley says.
Still, others are pressing for more conversation on their use and stress the time to dig deeper is now.
“Our overarching goal is to preserve the efficacy of antibiotics for future generations,” says Guy Loneragan, veterinary epidemiologist and professor of food safety and health, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, Texas Tech University. “Antibiotic resistance is an incredibly serious threat that could reverse decades of medical advances.”
Loneragan believes there needs to be a balance between the societal benefits of antibiotic use in livestock and the societal risks. He says the societal perspective will bring veterinarians, public health officials, food security experts and others to the table for very important discussions.
He recently presented his extensive research on antimicrobial resistance to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
“We must look for opportunities to constantly improve, and that improvement ought to focus on using less antibiotics,” Loneragan says. “While zero ought not be a goal, we need to innovate, evaluate and implement approaches that decrease the need for all types of antibiotic use.”