A recent report showed the U.S. poultry industry dramatically reduced its antibiotic use this decade. However, its co-author says further reduction may be challenging.

The limiting factor

I recently interviewed Dr. Randall Singer, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, about his August 2019 report covering on-farm antimicrobial use in the broiler and turkey industries between 2013 and 2017.   

Antibiotic usage fell sharply in the study period. For example, today only 17% of broiler chicks placed received antimicrobials. In 2013, about 93% received antimicrobials. This is evidence of progress toward greater stewardship of antimicrobial use.

The industry is now in a situation where it needs to find the right balance between protecting animal health and welfare and further reducing antibiotic use. The greatest challenge to health and welfare, Singer said, will be diseases caused by clostridial bacteria such as necrotic enteritis. There are no effective, non-antimicrobial treatments available for these diseases.

Incentivize drug or vaccine development?

The industry can, and does, take management and animal husbandry steps to reduce exposure to disease challenges at every phase of the poultry supply chain. But, a drug- or vaccine-based intervention is still needed.

Perhaps this is where the industry, or its associations, can pool its financial resources to help solve a common problem. Vaccine and drug research and development is prohibitively expensive. Players in the private sector will not make an investment unless they are confident a new product will be profitable.

Maybe if the industry let its counterparts in pharmaceuticals know how important this problem is – and how much of a demand there is for a new, effective product – it will motivate the gears of progress to turn a little more quickly.