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Poultry Around the World

Mark Clements' view of the world poultry industry with a British twist.
Broilers & Layers / Egg Production / Poultry Welfare

The poultry industry, antibiotics and friendship

April 27, 2012

I never really think of chickens, or any birds for that matter, as being the friendliest of creatures. Playing in a battery house as a child saw me get up to all sorts of things that probably should not be mentioned here. I used to go there with my cousin, but had the egg farm been less isolated, and had there been more children of our age, those chickens probably would have had easier lives.

While broilers and layers may not be the friendliest of things, we do all need friends, and this holds true across the whole range of the poultry industry, particularly where poultry health is concerned and the role of antibiotics and antimicrobials.

I hope that readers are aware that World Veterinary Day took place in late April, particularly because antimicrobial resistance and responsible use of antibiotics was high on the agenda. Interest in antimicrobial resistance shows no signs of abating, yet political efforts to tackle resistance are still focusing on their use in animals. Effort needs to be made across board if we are to find a long-lasting solution to a problem that should not be ignored.

The British Veterinary Association notes that all vets should be made aware of resistance problems, that every vet should be held accountable for which antimicrobial is used, that every vet must accept constraints on the use of certain classes of antimicrobials, and every professional association must communicate better the need for veterinary antimicrobials. Few would disagree with that.

Back in 1998, in the UK, the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance was formed to bring about cooperation between the many elements of the "farm to fork" process, highlighting the need to work together in food production. Earlier this year, the Poultry Science Association released a statement in conjunction with the U.S. Federation of Animal Science Societies, saying: "The Federation of Animal Sciences strongly supports the judicious use of antibiotics in food animal care consistent with the health and welfare of the animals, with preserving the value of antibiotics in protecting human and animal health, and with the efficient use of the earth's resources in food production."

Commenting this April, Carl Padgett, president of the British Veterinary Association, said: “Preserving the efficacy of antimicrobials for use in people is vital, but the fact remains that they are also needed to treat animals. Antibiotics are a vital tool in our armory to combat animal diseases and the global veterinary profession must ensure they are used prudently and responsibly if we are to avoid a crisis.” It seems to me that the poultry industry could do worse than get behind vets and their cries for everyone to assume responsibility for antimicrobial resistance to help preserve veterinary and, indeed, human use. The right decisions can only be made with the right information, and vets, who let us not forget, are a key part of modern egg and poultry production, are perhaps not receiving the support they deserve in this argument.

There are people who are trying to rebalance the argument. Take, for example, some work that has recently come out of the UK where scientists at the University of Glasgow have called on policymakers to reconsider priorities in efforts to understand and control resistance.

An integrated team at Glasgow looked at long-term surveillance data for Salmonella typhimurium DT104 from co-located humans and animals in Scotland, and demonstrated how animal and human DT104 populations differ significantly in several ways, such as prevalence, linkage, time of emergence and diversity. The findings suggest that local animal populations are unlikely to be the major source of resistance in humans, and question policies that restrict the use of antimicrobials in local domestic animals.

Director of the university’s Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, Professor Daniel Hadon, commented: “In our study, there were significantly more human-only types of resistance than we might have expected if the animal and human microbial communities were well mixed, suggesting that the risk of resistances passing from animals to humans is lower than previous research has indicated.”

He continued that the research found that, in the majority of resistances which are common to both animals and humans, the resistances appeared first in humans, and that it appeared unlikely that the animal population was the major source of resistance diversity for humans.

When taking any decision, it is often worth seeking the advice of friends. Sometimes, we are simply too close to a problem to see it clearly, but calling on the opinions of friends and colleagues, who have a slightly different perspective, can give the best results. So should there be such a strong focus on the animal use of antibiotics and antimicrobials, or are there better ways to tackle antibiotic resistance? Who should we ask?

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