WASHINGTON, May 11, 2016 - Are farmers and ranchers doing enough to curb unnecessary antibiotic use in their operations? Two expert panelists who spoke at last Thursday’s Animal Agriculture Alliance meeting said yes – and encouraged attendees to get the word out.

Leah Dorman, a veterinarian and director of food integrity and consumer engagement for Phibro Animal Health, said producers should celebrate the guidance the FDA has provided in recent years, calling for the voluntary elimination of antibiotics used for growth promotion and for the veterinary oversight of antibiotics administered in feed or water by 2017.

“We’re making some changes, folks, and we have a golden opportunity in the next seven months to talk about this,” she said. “We’re doing our part in animal agriculture to ensure that we’re using antibiotics responsibly and that’s a very important message to get out to consumers.” 

Limiting the use of antibiotics in animal production is possible, and “there are companies out there that do a wonderful job of raising animals without antibiotics,” Dorman said, but that can involve some tough business decisions and can lead to “unintended consequences,” including suffering among animals and food-safety issues.

Richard Raymond, a public health consultant and former USDA under secretary for food safety during the George W. Bush administration, is of the same opinion – that antibiotics are an essential tool in raising healthy animals for safe food. 

Raymond pointed to a report from the World Health Organization on antibiotic resistance, released in 2014, which says that food-producing animals harbor pathogens that can transfer to humans (the most common transferable bacteria are Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli and Enterococcus), that those pathogens can have adverse effects on food production, and that antibiotic resistance in animals can spread to humans. However, WHO acknowledges in the report that it doesn’t know how resistance is transmitted through the food chain to humans, or what impact that transmission has on the effectiveness of human antibiotics.

“We don’t know how much interaction there is between animal health and human health,” Raymond said. “All we know is that there’s very little crossover between antibiotics used in both animals and humans.”  Raymond said that according to his interpretation of 2014 FDA data on antibiotics sales in the U.S., less than 20 percent of the antibiotics approved for use in food-producing animals are used in human medicine.

“We are moving in the right direction… but no one seems to know that or say that,” he said. “The FDA is responsible for (tracking antibiotic use) and they’re doing a pretty darn good job.” 

Many in the world of antibiotic resistance research and policy would disagree with Raymond, perhaps most notably a White House panel – the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (PACCARB) – which recently gave its evaluation on how well the federal government is managing to fight resistance.

One of PACCARB’s recommendations was for USDA to monitor how and how much antibiotics were being used in food-producing animals. 

“Collecting on-farm antibiotic data is of critical importance,” the panel said in its report, and “lack of federal funding is hindering on-farm work and constrains implementation of the NAP (National Action Plan on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria).”

Raymond said he was “not really excited” about on-farm monitoring because he didn’t think “it will really help much.” 

“Who is going to go through all that paperwork” from the farms?, he asked. How much would it all cost? Raymond suggested that because the link between antibiotic resistance in human antibiotics and animal antibiotics isn’t fully understood, it wouldn’t make sense to make the animal industry “do all that paperwork.”

Some of the biggest players in agriculture – the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council – have been wary of on-farm monitoring, citing data security and confidentiality concerns. 

Raymond did say, however, that it would be helpful to have more complete data on antibiotic use – how much is administered to food-producing animals versus companion animals, how the drugs are administered and for what purpose (treatment, control or prevention) – as opposed to just FDA sales data. And he praised the FDA’s guidance as “good policy.” 

Yesterday, FDA released a final rule that requires drug sponsors of antibiotics used in food-producing animals to report how much they sell for the use in specific species, such as cattle, swine, chickens or turkeys. “Adding the requirement for sponsors to report species-specific sales estimates will complement the data collection plan we are developing to obtain additional on-farm use and resistance data,” FDA said in a release. “The collection of data from multiple sources… is needed to provide a comprehensive and science-based picture of antimicrobial drug use and resistance in animal agriculture.”


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