The use of antibiotics in livestock and the danger of antibiotic resistance are hot topics, and there is a lot of misinformation, especially with urban residents.
We need to provide them with correct information and set the record straight on how the industry is addressing the issue. Good brochures and websites are available that give factual and current information on the subject.
Some in the food industry are promoting meat from livestock “raised without antibiotics.” There are two responses to this:
- In some cases, antibiotics are needed from an animal welfare perspective.
- We have established legal withdrawal periods to ensure that no antibiotics, vaccines or other drugs such as NSAIDs get into our meat and milk.
The best brochure on this topic that I have seen is, Worried about Antibiotic Use and Resistance in Cattle? which is published by Alberta Beef Producers.
It explains the four main categories of antimicrobials:
- Category one drugs have very high importance in human medicine. They are drugs of last resort. In livestock, the brands include Excede and Baytril.
- Category two antibiotics have high importance in human health, but there are alternatives.
- Category three drugs are not often used in treating humans and effective alternatives are available.
- Category four antibiotics are not used in humans.
Categories one and two make up less than one to two percent of the antimicrobials used in cattle production.
Category one drugs should be used only for treatment of severe medical conditions such as a bad pneumonia.
Veterinarians advise using the lowest category that will likely work on the condition at hand.
I think we’ll see vets ordering more autopsies when animals don’t respond to drugs that previously worked.
The lab will grow the bacteria causing the illness and use little discs impregnated with antibiotics to see which ones work.
This gives us a much better scientific approach to treatment and should provide a higher success rate.
The drawback is that this takes a couple days to do. In the meantime, we need to treat the disease and will usually rely on protocols and success rates.
The possibility of resistant bacteria passing from cattle to humans is remote.
Remember, category one drugs are rarely used in livestock. Also, resistant bacteria would need to get through the packing plant and all the precautions they use such as steam sterilization, ultraviolet light and a clean environment. The resistant bacterial would then need to get into a person and then have the antibiotic prescribed by the doctor not work.
This is an unlikely chain of events.
A research cluster, which is led by Tim McAllister of Agriculture Canada’s research centre in Lethbridge and also includes researchers from the cattle industry and veterinary colleges, is looking at all these potential pathways to make sure all possibilities have been considered.
This alone is positive evidence that the industry is doing its due diligence to protect livestock production and people.
Veterinarian Craig Dorin of Airdrie, Alta., has a great quote on the subject: “It is our privilege and not our right to be able to use antibiotics in the animals we take care of.”
The surveillance we do in the industry shows drug resistance levels are low in beef.
If resistance is found, the bacteria are likely resistant to most antibiotics in the same family of drugs, so veterinarians will prescribe a different family of antibiotics.
This year, your veterinarian will be much more involved with antimicrobials used in livestock medicine, especially those that were generally non-prescription but administered in the feed or water.
More than 75 percent of the drugs are used in feed, so enhanced oversight at this level is where producers will see the most changes.
These are steps that will help reduce antibiotic use where possible and ensure the most effective ones are used for the condition at hand.
As well, growth promotant indications are coming off antibiotic labelling this year. It might be true that reduced disease incidence helps increase growth as a secondary benefit, but your veterinarian will need a medical reason to prescribe.
The Beef Cattle Research Council has a great website at www.beefresearch.ca/amr, which contains clear information and has a seven minute video that everyone in the cattle industry should watch.
We need to get back to management practices that we know will minimize sickness and hence lower antibiotic use.
Calves should receive adequate quality and quantity of colostrum, and undergo low stress weaning and preimmunization up to two weeks before weaning.
More direct movement of cattle through satellite and internet sales reduces commingling, in which disease can pass from one animal to another.
These practices can reduce the need to use antimicrobials and save on the labour and costs of using them. This might be easier said then done, but the potential reduction in antimicrobial use is great.
Pharmaceutical companies are increasing their focus on vaccinology, so you will see broader coverage vaccines for viruses and bacteria.
Intranasal vaccines can provide quicker coverage. New technology is improving the degree of immunity and length of coverage.
The future will most likely see vaccines replace antimicrobials. It is far better to prevent by management and vaccination than treat with antibiotics.
Management includes parasite treatments. Your herd’s natural immune system will be stronger when parasites are controlled, and proper nutrition also helps minimize sickness.
The veterinary community’s oversight will focus on prevention, production, control and therapy.
The Alberta Veterinary Medical Association has developed a website at www.raisedwithcare.ca that is interactive and includes quizzes to test your knowledge.
Check out these reference sources and tell the public so that we can be leaders and educators in helping with the global battle against antibiotic resistance.
We might be doing a good job, but there is always room for improvement. Question your veterinarian and yourself if antimicrobial usage seems too frequent on your operation.
Responsible antibiotic use is not about residues: we already do a fantastic job at that. It is about using the right drug for the right bug and for the right length of time.
The cattle industry can take pride in taking the lead. The medical profession can learn a lot from what we do. Tell your story.
Roy Lewis works as a technical services veterinarian part time with Merck Animal Health in Alberta.