Antibiotic angst

by Bernard Shire
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On the surface, the growing trend over the past few years to not use antibiotics in food animals seems simple, at least in the minds of consumers. Many consumers believe that the use of antibiotics in chicken, turkey, pigs, lamb or cows can pose health and safety hazards.

It’s pretty obvious that if antibiotics are necessary to treat illnesses in people – specifically bacterial infections – then they are just as necessary for the health of animals. Most pet owners don’t have any qualms about giving antibiotics to their cats and dogs if prescribed by their veterinarians. And they are just as necessary for the health of animals used for human food.

But consumers have a lot of reservations about antibiotics given to animals used to produce human food, for a number of reasons. One is the concern about overuse of antibiotics that can result in antibiotic resistance. Research has shown this is more of a problem for people than animals. Antibiotic resistance seems to occur when they are overprescribed by physicians for people. Antibiotics can treat and destroy bacterial-type infections – but don’t do any good against viruses or the common cold, for example. Many officials in the public health community have been urging doctors to be careful when they prescribe antibiotics so they won’t be given for sicknesses where they will have no effect.

But doctors often report to the medical associations that they are pressured by patients to prescribe antibiotics even if they’re not going to do any good. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, says that whenever a person takes antibiotics, bacteria are killed, but germs that may be resistant to the drugs may survive, grow and multiply. The CDC says repeated and improper uses of antibiotics are primary causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria.

In fact, two years ago, the CDC published a new report called “Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States.” In this report, the CDC said that 50 percent of antibiotics prescribed for people aren’t needed and don’t do any good when people take them. CDC Director Thomas Frieden, MD, said the worst problem is in hospitals, and that more resistant germs and bacteria are found in human hospitals, because of this overuse among people.

But while there is ample proof that antibiotic problems are centered largely in human use, that doesn’t get the animal industry off the hook. The CDC has expressed great concern about the use of antibiotics in animal production to promote growth, and said this use should be phased out. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine has also taken steps to expand the role of veterinarians in managing antibiotics given to animals used for human food. The meat and poultry industry supports the FDA plan to increase veterinary oversight of antibiotic use.

Antibiotics have been used and continue to be used legitimately to treat health problems in animals. They’re used to treat animals with diagnosed illnesses; control spread of illness on a farm, ranch or flock during an outbreak; and take swift action to prevent the spread of diseases when animals are at risk of getting them.

Groups that oppose the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals have claimed that the antibiotics used to treat human illnesses, and those used to treat illnesses in animals are the same – but that’s not true. There is a very limited overlap in antibiotics used in people and those used in animals.

But because of the big controversy, even fear of antibiotics and their use in both people and food-producing animals, there has been a lot of pressure put on processors and manufacturers to produce meat and poultry products that are “antibiotic free” or that make the claim “no antibiotics – ever.” That’s despite the need for antibiotics to be prescribed properly for animal health, just as they’re prescribed legitimately for human health.

Still, some producers want to make these claims. And if animals have to be treated with antibiotics for health issues, then they’re processed into meat and poultry products sold without those claims. It puts meat and poultry processors and manufacturers in a tough position – on the one hand, they want to care for their animals, but on the other hand, they want to be able to sell their food products to consumers who have stronger demands about what they do and don’t want in their food. “There’s no doubt about it, these claims have become a marketing tool for meat and poultry processors,” Alfred Almanza, deputy under secretary for food safety and acting FSIS administrator, recently told MEAT+POULTRY.

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