The recent release of the Food and Drug Administration’s report on antibiotic sales brought a round of calls from certain advocacy groups to ban the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. These advocates remind me of another crowd: the anti-vaccination movement. Both the groups pushing for an antibiotic-free animal agriculture and the “anti-vaxxers” ignore established science on their respective issues in a way that leads to diminished human and animal welfare.
We certainly should have a debate about the judicious use of antibiotics in agriculture, but jumping to an outright ban defies science and common sense, will cause more animal suffering, and may have adverse effects on public health.
While those pushing for an outright ban are on the fringe, concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria in agriculture are starting to hit the mainstream. In American Humane Association’s 2014 Humane Heartland Farm Animal Welfare Survey, more than half of the respondents indicated that they seek out food labeled “antibiotic free,” second only behind “humanely raised.”
Lack of evidence that animal antibiotic use is bad for human health
Opponents of antibiotics frequently point to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that at least two million Americans become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics every year. Reports indicate that the most resistant infections reside in human hospital settings. However, there is no evidence that antibiotics used in animal agriculture have decreased the effectiveness of antibiotics in humans. According to Dr. Stephanie Doores of Pennsylvania State University, “People would be more likely to die from a bee sting than for their antibiotic treatment to fail because of macrolide-resistant bacteria in meat or poultry.”
A look across the world to Denmark is also instructive. Despite a complete ban on antibiotic use for growth promotion instituted in 2000, there is very little evidence that it led to any positive impacts on human health or a decline in antibiotic resistant bacteria. In fact, it has resulted in a significant increase in the therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals, due to animals getting sick.
Antibiotics can and do help animal well-being
Science – and common sense – tell us that antibiotics can and do help improve well-being, decrease mortality rates of farm animals, and prevent unnecessary suffering. Just as they do when given to a child with strep throat, antibiotics relieve the pain and distress of sick animals while helping them to recover. One of the Five Freedoms upon which the American Humane Certified program is based is the freedom “from pain, injury and disease.” An outright ban would be inhumane to sick animals, and would violate one of the Five Freedoms that serves as the internationally accepted social contract with animals.
Additionally, what is not often discussed is that use of antibiotics in farm animals provides for a safer food supply, and that the FDA has long required withdrawal periods for such use. As noted by Dr. Christine Hoang, assistant director of the American Veterinary Medical Association, in her 2010 testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Health: “For food animals, drugs additionally contribute to the public health by mitigating disease and thereby reducing the numbers of bacteria entering the food supply. Studies show that a reduction in the incidence of food animal illness will reduce bacterial contamination on meat, thereby reducing the risk of human illness.”
Science-based dialogues on antibiotics needed
Because it is an issue of concern for the public, antibiotic use in agriculture demands a healthy and robust discussion. But veterinarians, public health professionals and scientists should be determining what the appropriate use of antibiotics is. And such a discussion needs to include outcomes for the sick animal, as it’s simply not humane to leave an animal to suffer needlessly.
Recent moves by Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s demonstrate that the issue is becoming more urgent. Let’s set aside the scare tactics and pressure campaigns and have a real, honest conversation about safe and proper antibiotic use that’s driven by science.
Agriculture, researchers and humane organizations must work together to educate the public and food companies about proper antibiotic use, or else the dialogue will be led by misinformation. In working together, we can develop policies that improve animal health and welfare, safeguard our abundant food supply and protect public health. Better science is needed to advance a better understanding of human and animal health, and define what it is to be humane.
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