Antibiotics are an integral part of commercial poultry production and recently their use has come under public and federal scrutiny. The use of antibiotics has helped improve the health and productivity of commercial flocks; enhanced the quality of eggs and meat; and reduced the cost of chicken for consumers over the last 3 decades. Consumers now have access to an abundant source of cheap, safe protein because of the advances made by the food animal industry.
But, according to some, these benefits may have been gained at a cost. For a number of years, the consistent use of antibiotics in livestock has been cited by some individuals and organizations as a potential contributing factor to increasing antibiotic resistance in the human population. The use of antibiotics for the purpose of increasing feed efficiency has come under the spotlight. The pressure is increasing to reduce or even ban antibiotics in all food producing animals.
In June of 2010 the FDA issued draft guidelines for comment which urged that antimicrobial drugs be used as judiciously as possible in food-producing animals in order to slow the development of resistance in humans. The document went on to suggest that new regulations may be issued if the industry does not comply voluntarily. The FDA states that the loss of effectiveness of medically important antibiotics(1) “poses a serious public health threat” and the elimination of their nontherapeutic or subtherapeutic use in livestock is necessary to preserve their effectiveness.
However, the use of antibiotics to maintain a healthy gut flora, prevent enteric diseases and allow birds to fully utilise their feed, remains a common management practice. What will a complete ban on nontherapeutic or subtherapeutic use mean for the health of flocks and the price of meat and eggs to the consumer?
Will a ban actually reduce use significantly enough to impact resistance in other populations? When the EU banned the use of in-feed antibiotics, there was an upsurge in the use for therapeutic purposes. Due to the higher doses needed for disease treatment, the total amount of antimicrobials used in production actually went up instead of down.
Is there an equally effective alternative? “In an ideal world, we wouldn’t use antibiotics at all,” says Dr. Jon Schaeffer, Director of U.S. Veterinary Operations for Pfizer Poultry Health. “In fact, over the last 20 to 30 years use of therapeutic antibiotics has fallen to minimal levels due to the introduction of new vaccines and other improvements in the way we prevent disease.” Improved husbandry practices may compensate to some degree but cannot fully fill the gap.
Are there other options? The FDA’s concerns focus primarily on those antibiotics that are 'medically important' in the treatment of human disease.
Are there antibiotics which are not classified as such that are a viable substitute in terms of disease prevention and consumer perception? Can we gain the same benefits in terms of feed efficiency and bird welfare with alternative products?
“Pfizer is working on a number of production-enhancing products that have the same effect as antibiotics and could potentially replace them altogether. But it’s a long and expensive process to develop and license new products” says Dr. Schaeffer. “Pfizer is one of the few companies that can invest in the future to this degree.”
Pfizer is committed to the development of new vaccines and other preventative systems with the aim of making common production diseases a thing of the past. The ultimate goal is to make antibiotics redundant, and over time this is a realistic goal. However an immediate ban without alternative options in place could be catastrophic for birds and consumers.
The prudent use of antibiotics
In brief, the prudent use of antibiotics is using the right antibiotic at the proper dose for the proper length of time. Veterinarians play a key role in determining all of these factors. The veterinary profession is in an ideal position to help introduce more control over the use of antibiotics in poultry production. The direct involvement of veterinary oversight provides consumers with a level of assurance that birds are being taken care of properly.
“Veterinarians are respected professionals in this area and they have a vital role in enhancing animal welfare and helping to protect the safety of the food supply. They should be deciding which antibiotics birds receive and at what dose based on their professional judgement and training” says Dr. Schaeffer.
Increasing veterinary involvement in antimicrobial practices introduces another level of accountability and responsibility. Current antibiotic selection and dosing practices often lacks veterinary oversight. The FDA draft guidelines on antimicrobial use assert prescription and administration should be supervised by veterinarians. Increasing or implementing this type of supervision would likely play a role in reducing overall usage. More veterinary control over antibiotic use would reassure legislators and the public that these drugs are being used responsibly.
Pfizer is committed to helping poultry veterinarians and individual producers find appropriate health solutions at the farm level. With an eye on the longer term, the company is using considerable R&D resources to look for more permanent alternatives to antibiotics. "The ultimate goal is to make antibiotics redundant" states Dr. Schaeffer.
(1) "Medically important antibiotics" refers to antimicrobial drugs that are important for therapeutic use in humans