President Obama and his administration seem to have staked out a middle ground on the debate over the use of antibiotics in both human and veterinary medicine – although he seems to be satisfying the meat and poultry industry more than the anti-antibiotics crowd.



 Bernard Shire

Last month, Obama directed the US government to develop a national plan against antibiotic-resistant pathogens and germs by early next year. The decision is recognition of the threat posed by these resistant germs to both people and animals.

Industry trade groups were supportive of the president’s ideas, while politicians voicing concerns that overuse of antibiotics in agriculture adversely affects people were a little less satisfied with his plan. The president’s request comes at the very beginning of the flu season, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asking people to begin getting immunized against flu for the winter. Scientists believe repeated contact with antibiotics can lead bacteria to become resistant to them, so they are no longer effective in treating an illness or infection. Critics of antibiotic use on farms say their use there adversely affects human health when people consume those animals. There needs to be great reduction in the use of antibiotics in food animals in order for antibiotics to be effective in human medicine, believes US Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), a longtime supporter of reduced use of antibiotics.

One step directed by Obama’s executive order is for the Food and Drug Administration to keep underway its steps stopping the agriculture industry’s use of what’s called “medically important” antibiotics to promote the growth of food animals.

But the meat and poultry processing industry makes a very important point by noting that antibiotic resistance by bacteria is a very complicated issue – not a simple one – and that antibiotics are important tools for use by veterinarians and human medical doctors in both animal and human medicine. The recommendations being made by the Obama administration are very similar to what the CDC emphasized last year.

Unfortunately, many critics of antibiotic use in agriculture say a cutback is needed in agriculture in order to preserve antibiotic use in what they see as its most important area – human medicine. The fact is both human and veterinary medicine must play important roles in solving the problem of antibiotic overuse.

The agriculture industry has already begun doing its part. Animal-health and drug companies, veterinarians, and the ranchers and farmers raising the animals are already working to put into effect the FDA policy to phase out the use of antibiotics to promote growth in animals. The industry also is increasing more oversight of antibiotic use by veterinarians.

But the industry makes another very important point – that more research and study is needed in order to fully understand what is causing the increasing amount of resistance of bacteria and germs to antibiotics today. Meat producers and processors work with veterinarians right now to keep down the need for and use of antibiotics, especially antibiotics that are important for use in human medicine.

The agriculture industry, including veterinary medicine, and the human medical community must work together to solve the antibiotic resistance problem. But in fact, both the CDC and the White House pointed out the greatest challenge and threat to public health is the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine. It’s obvious that the human and animal medical communities must work together to make sure that antibiotics, originally called “miracle drugs,” will continue to be that miracle for both.

Bernard Shire is a contributing editor based in Lancaster, Pa. He also works as a food safety consultant with Shire and Associates.