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A Healthy Balance


A Healthy Balance

Article Highlights
Consumers want to know more about antibiotic use in livestock. What is a healthy balance?
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Nearly 2/3 of shoppers are more concerned with safety & impact of antibiotics now than in the past.
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Is animal antibiotics use causing human antibiotics to be less effective? Studies show no direct connection.
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Cara Riekhof is a busy mom. Together with husband, Garrett, they raise their 4 and 8-year-old daughters on a farm near Higginsville. She is no different from millions of other grocery shoppers who want healthy food choices on a budget. Although her family has cows and raises calves, she buys her meat at the grocery store. When it comes to food safety and the use of antibiotics in livestock, Riekhof understands both sides of the grocery cart. She and other consumers want to know more about antibiotic use in livestock grown for food.

In an independent survey conducted last year, the Service Management Group questioned 2,000 consumers of various ages and income levels across the U.S. The study found 54 percent of consumers indicated that knowing whether animals received antibiotics was important or very important to them when purchasing meat. Nearly two-thirds of the shoppers were much more concerned or more concerned about the safety and impact of antibiotics now than in the past.

But Riekhof says consumer fears can be calmed. “It’s about understanding the true process a farmer goes through in raising their animals,” she says. “There are many who don’t grasp the complexity and challenges livestock farmers have and their need to use antibiotics. If your child is sick, you go to the doctor. If a calf is sick, the farmer goes to the veterinarian to get their guidance to make that calf healthy.”

As a farm wife, she knows farmers are not going to inject anything in their animals that will be harmful to humans. In fact, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules require withdrawal times for veterinary medicines, including antibiotics, so the substance is out of the animal’s system before they become hot wings or T-bones.

But is the use of animal antibiotics causing human antibiotics to be less effective? Medical studies have not made a direct connection between the two. Farmers and their veterinarians (DVMs) say antibiotic use in animals produced for food is not the problem, but agree antibiotic resistance is increasing in animals and humans alike.

Last fall a symposium was held in Kansas City by veterinarians, researchers and government health officials to discuss antibiotic use in humans and livestock. Experts at the event, hosted by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), came from both human and animal medicine to discuss the complicated issue.

Dr. Robert Tauxe, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told peers at the symposium antimicrobial treatments have been critical in human and veterinary medicine for more than 60 years, and antimicrobial resistance has been a challenge for almost as long. Antibiotics are a type of antimicrobial.
Former USDA undersecretary for food safety, Dr. Richard Raymond, is now a consultant. During the symposium he said the animal agriculture industry is being painted as irresponsible and inappropriate users of massive amounts of antibiotics in healthy animals, when in fact, the current uses and doses of antibiotics in animals have been approved by the FDA as appropriate.
In December, the FDA released GFI #213 (Guidance for Industry). The guidance implements new controls on therapeutic uses of animal drugs and updates product labels. The voluntary rules limit antimicrobial use in animals to “medically important” use. In other words, livestock farmers will no longer be able to use antibiotics for “production use” to promote growth after December 12, 2016. They can be used only to treat, control or prevent disease.

At the end of March, the FDA announced 25 of the 26 U.S. pharmaceutical companies licensed to make animal drugs agreed to stop selling antibiotics for growth promotion in farm animals.

The GFI increases veterinary oversight, recommending changes in the status of certain drugs from over-the-counter to veterinary feed directive (VFD), which requires a written statement from a veterinarian that authorizes the farmer to use an FDA-approved drug in livestock feed.

The new rules are a big pill for livestock producers to swallow. As the number of veterinarians decline, most DVMs depend on farmers to administer antibiotics under their care.

Dr. Tony Martin, staff veterinarian and manager of the Animal Health Department for MFA, explained the new FDA rules to farmers at Missouri Farm Bureau’s Commodity Conference in February.

“I think this is driven by emotion,” he says. “As a person with a science background, I have looked at those figures. There have been a lot of commissions charged with trying to ferret this issue out. I have not seen anything that makes a statistical link or a good mathematically strong link of the risk of antibiotic use in food animals to the presence of an increase of bacteria to the human population.”
Martin says there is a mechanism in place for taking that product all the way to the consumer’s plate safely.

The federal government has monitored bacteria in meat and poultry since the early 1970s. Its National Residue Program (NRP), partners USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to monitor food-animal products. The system provides a structured process for identifying and evaluating chemical compounds, including veterinary drugs, in food animals. In addition to inspector programs at slaughter plants, FSIS conducts random sampling to ensure food-animal products are safe, testing for 58 drug residues.

Martin sees benefits to the new guidance rules for both farmers and consumers. “The biggest benefit to producers is it will force them to develop a stronger, more beneficial relationship with their veterinarian and their feed and antibiotics supplier,” he says. “It should provide a stronger relationship between these three entities that in the long-run should improve efficiency of production.”

For consumers, he says the ultimate benefit is providing a stronger regulatory paper trail that shows antibiotics are being used judiciously in animal agriculture. “Maybe it will help solidify consumer belief in the safety of the food products out there.”

But many livestock producers already have close working relationships with their veterinarians. In the poultry industry, the birds are owned by the company and the farmer owns the growing buildings. Companies like Cargill and Tyson contract with growers to feed the birds and in turn the company provides their own DVMs and medicine needed to keep the animals healthy. The farmer must follow a strict plan of health and nutrition set by the company.

Dennis Feezor and his wife, Sue, grow more than 55,000 turkeys south of California, Mo., each year for Cargill. The birds are grown in flocks of 14,000 birds in 16-week cycles. A Cargill field representative works closely with the Feezors and medical diagnoses are approved by a DVM employed by the company. “Like any animals you raise, we have total responsibility for the birds’ care,” Dennis says. “How well they do affects our pay.”

The more effective antibiotics Cargill used for turkey flocks were taken off the market a few years ago. Feezor says what is used now doesn’t work as well and that creates challenges to keep the turkeys healthy. Regardless of which antibiotic is used for which animal, withdrawal times for medications used on livestock grown for food is mandatory. Inspectors at meat processing plants double-check for antibiotic residue in meat. If anything is found, the meat is rejected. Consumers should get their information on antibiotics from more than one scientific source.

“With too many things, we know enough to be dangerous,” Feezor says. He uses cholesterol as an example. “A few years ago when they discovered cholesterol, they just about eliminated the use of eggs until they figured out eggs have good cholesterol. We are so early in the stages of the antibiotic issue that we really don’t know what we are dealing with.”

Healthy animals require round-the-clock care. For small animals, like turkeys in large flocks, giving medications by feed or water is the least stressful form of controlling disease. To hear some of the hyperbole asking people to take some action against antibiotics without really knowing what to do isn’t justified, Feezor says.

“People have every right to be concerned, but I don’t’ think consumers realize the consequences. If you eliminate antibiotics there is a cost to be paid for that. It is going to cost in increased food prices,” he says. “The tragic part is we really don’t know what we need to do. What we do may actually hurt more than help.”
Hog farmer Todd Hays is an independent grower near Monroe City selling market hogs to the meat packer of his choice. He has a working relationship with his veterinarian that spans nearly 30 years. “All of the antibiotics we use are under the guidance of our vet,” he says. “All of us who work on this farm have gone through certification on pork quality assurance and how to properly administer an antibiotic. We know when to use it, when to withdraw it and we record all of those treatments.”

Those records are so precise, an FDA inspector at the meat packing plant can pick out a lot of hogs from Hays farm and trace back any medication or feed used in the barns the animal was raised. Records must be kept for a minimum of two years. All withdrawal dates of medications must be noted.

But Hays says his veterinarian can’t do it all. “If we had to have our veterinarian treat every pig that needed treatment, we would have to have him here every day. We are on-site and we have been trained and know when an animal is sick. We know, through working with our vet, the type of products we can use to treat the animal and in the proper dosage. We may be treating different animals differently on a daily basis based on their needs. Our vet allows us to do that. Antibiotics are expensive, we are not going to overuse them,” Hays says.

Dr. Jack Coleman is Hays’ veterinarian. He believes allowing only veterinarians to administer antibiotics is a bad idea. “There are more pigs than there are veterinarians. They wouldn’t have the time to treat all of those animals,” he says. His hog farmers administer antibiotics under his supervision. Those treatments are recommended and monitored by Coleman, who is responsible for residue issues in the meat.

That means Coleman is also involved in the packer requirements for the packers farmers sell to and for processor verification. All medication usage has to be verified and recorded. If there is any group therapy where medication is added to food or water, when the treatment was started and stopped has to be documented. Each medicine has its own withdrawal date.

Coleman is comfortable with the new FDA requirement that antibiotic manufacturers voluntarily put on their label wording such as not for growth promotion, only for prevention or treatment of disease. “That is what we need to do – have them used to treat disease,” he says.

But are the new FDA guidelines misguided? Is the FDA targeting the wrong problem?

The larger issue is one of growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics in both animals and humans. A 114-page report issued in September by the CDC reported more than two million people are sickened every year with antibiotic-resistant infections, with at least 23,000 dying as a result. The report mentions phasing out the use of antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals, but makes no direct connection with resistance in humans.

As a small-town veterinarian, Coleman says he is not in a position to know whether there is human resistance or not due to the use of antibiotics in livestock. “There are certainly a lot of people in the veterinary community that say there is no proven connection. The other side says there is. I do have a feeling they are going in the wrong direction,” he says. “We don’t have residue in the meat. We have verification so we know it is not there to provide any resistance when we are talking about consumption.”

According to Coleman, disagreement comes when talking about the actual bacteria. Can an organism that transfers from an animal to human, or vise-versa, build up resistance to antibiotics used by the other? The answer is not a simple one.

Dr. Terry Dwelly, with the North Dakota Department of Health, told those attending the NIAA symposium one problem is antibiotic use in humans. “The most common causes of antibiotic resistance in human medicine are inappropriate use and inappropriate dosing. People are often given antibiotics for common colds, upper respiratory tract issues, bronchitis. These are all viral diseases and antibiotics won’t touch it. One-third of patients believe that antibiotics will help a person get less sick if they have a cold.”

One example Raymond cites is multi-drug resistant (MDR) Salmonella. A February 2013 NARMS report stated that MDR Salmonella was increasing in percentage. Those against the slaughter of animals for food acted enraged and alarmed. In reality, Raymond says the report shows that for retail chicken and ground turkey, the four most common antibiotics that Salmonella showed resistance to were tetracycline, streptomycin, sulfixoxazole and penicillin. None of these drugs would be used to treat a Salmonella infection. Macrolides, Batrim DS and quinolones are the first line antibiotics for foodborne illnesses and still work.

As one researcher said at the symposium, science can be viewed through different lenses. “One person can look at a study and interpret results and what the study infers in one light while a second person interprets the data differently,” said Dr. Morgan Scott, DVM and professor at Kansas State University’s college of veterinary medicine. “Provocative titles, even in professional journals, gain attention but may be overstating research findings.”

Researchers and doctors do agree the real issue is the judicious use of antimicrobials and their impact on human health. Understanding how antibiotic resistance evolves will only be gained through analytical science based on testing and factual data, not science based on social or political goals.

Farmers want the best tools to keep their animals healthy. As Hays puts it, whether a farmer raises cattle, hogs, sheep or poultry, they are compassionate about their animals. But farming is also a business and that compassion includes the end-result, the production of healthy food.

Riekhof has her own suggestion for consumers. “If you know somebody who knows a farmer, the farmer is the one who will have the correct, truthful answer for any consumer out there,” she says. Whether it is at the farmers’ market or elsewhere, seek out information from the source. The truth is, farmers earnestly want consumers to understand how their food is produced, antibiotics or not.


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