Alternatives to livestock antibiotics are difficult to assess

Natural antimicrobials such as garlic may prevent infection in some animals, but some other ‘natural’ antibiotics do not

In October, a sales representative for an American company sent an email to reporters at The Western Producer. The email touted a new product that could replace or reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock production.

The product was made from compounds found in the allium family of plants, which includes onions and garlic, that may have natural antimicrobial properties.

The founder of the company used extracts from garlic to create a feed additive that he said controls pathogenic bacteria and increases the population of beneficial bacteria in livestock.

That means the product could potentially replace antibiotics and prevent infection in herds of cattle, pigs and poultry.

Natural antimicrobials like this garlic product may actually work, but some other “natural” antibiotics definitely do not.

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“The problem is that some of them do have a level of credibility and others have absolutely no credibility,” said Tim McAllister, a ruminant nutrition and microbiology expert with Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge.

“(But) it’s very difficult to differentiate between the two ends of (that) spectrum.”

Farmers around the world are under pressure to reduce the amount of antibiotics they give to livestock to prevent and treat disease.

In November, the World Health Organization delivered a direct message to the livestock trade, saying farmers are overusing antibiotics and contributing to the growing threat of antibiotic resistance.

“WHO strongly recommends an overall reduction in the use of all classes of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals, including complete restriction of these antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention without diagnosis.”

The strongly worded WHO recommendation is part of a broader trend in the livestock sector, McAllister said.

“The most recent stuff I’ve seen suggests the pressure on the use of antimicrobials in livestock production is only going to increase, even at more rapid rate then it has,” he said. “A lot of the pressure is coming from the McDonald’s, the Burger Kings. Those guys are the ones driving the change.”

If Canadian livestock producers are forced to minimize or eliminate the preventive use of antibiotics, it’s certain that new players will step in to fill the void with alternative treatments.

A quick internet search shows that many companies have already entered the natural therapy market for livestock.

One site promoted using winter savory and thyme to treat mastitis, an udder infection common in dairy cows. Another website hyped essential oils as a way to treat intestinal parasites in sheep.

“You’re talking health food store for cattle,” McAllister said.

Some companies are trying to adapt natural human remedies and sell them into the livestock market, but other firms are devising novel alternatives to antibiotics.

ZIVO Bioscience, for example, is developing products from strains of algae. The Michigan biotech firm has been testing its compounds to see if they can prevent mastitis in dairy cows.

A number of the natural and innovative products entering the market might be effective, but how can a producer distinguish the good from the snake oil?

That’s not easy, partly because Canada has loose rules around marketing natural therapies.

“If the company wants to make a claim for disease treatment or disease prevention, then it is (regulated as) a drug,” McAllister said.

“It’s not the Wild West from a regulatory perspective, but it is from a marketing perspective.”

If a firm sells its product as a feed additive it can talk to potential buyers about the antimicrobial properties.

However, it can’t put those claims on the label, in brochures or on its website, which means the companies with skilled sales reps who can build trust with livestock producers will likely have the most success.

McAllister said he and his Agriculture Canada colleagues are interested in alternatives to antibiotics.

But being scientists, they want to know how a compound works and see evidence that it does work.

Their attitude to such products can be summed up with a quote that’s familiar to most scientists.

“In God we trust, all others bring data.”

Homeopathy for livestock?

Alternative treatments for pets and livestock have become commonplace in the United Kingdom. So common, in fact, that in November, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons issued a statement on these alternative treatments.

The Royal College in particular targeted homeopathy, a type of treatment where pets or livestock are treated with a highly diluted dose of a substance that causes disease.

“Homeopathy exists without a recognized body of evidence for its use. Furthermore, it is not based on sound scientific principles,” the Royal College said in its statement. “In order to protect animal welfare, we regard such treatments as being complementary rather than alternative to treatments for which there is a recognized evidence base or which are based in sound scientific principles.”

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