DENVER, Colo. — Livestock producers and veterinarians need to question antibiotic use and consider whether alternatives might work as well.
“The use of antibiotics going forward is a major issue that we are going to have to deal with. Every single agriculture person in the world at some point is going to have to measure and record antibiotic use,” said Rick Sibbel of Merck Animal Health.
“Use the right amount at the right time for the right length of time. That is judicious use,” he said.
Antimicrobial use in livestock has been associated with the rise of bacteria resistant to antimicrobial treatments in human medicine.
However, antimicrobial medications should not be eliminated altogether, said veterinarians at the National Institute of Animal Agriculture meeting in Denver, held April 10-12.
“Judicious use should not be interpreted as no use,” said poultry veterinarian Hector Cervantes of Phibro Animal Health.
“You should never withhold treatment from animals when it is medically justified,” he said at an antibiotics council session.
“There is tremendous pressure all over the world to reduce the use of antibiotics whether that is the right metric or not, it is the reality,” he said.
Government action has forced many to rethink antibiotic use since the veterinary feed directive was issued in 2017. The food and drug administration directive in the United States eliminates the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and feed efficiency. Use of these drugs delivered in feed and water may be done under veterinary supervision.
However, administering antibiotics to livestock in certain situations can prevent serious disease. That prevention may have more value than treating sick animals.
Population medicine is practiced within chicken barns where there may be 20,000 to 30,000 birds and individual treatment is not possible, said Cervantes.
The veterinarian’s goals are to address the health needs of poultry, which consequently protects food safety and the public.
Physicians and the public need to appreciate antibiotics are necessary for animal welfare, animal care and reduction of suffering, said Sibbel.
Nevertheless, domestic sales and distribution of antibiotics approved for use in food-producing animals is down in the U.S. and vaccination use is also improving.
“All signals in the pork industry at this point say there has been a 40 percent reduction of antibiotics delivered in feed,” said Sibbel. A similar reduction is happening in the poultry sector.
However, unexpected consequences can occur when antibiotics are removed from feed and water to prevent serious illness like lawsonia enteric disease, common in young pigs.
“Within 90 days of the VFD(veterinary feed directive) we took antibiotics out of the grower pig stage and the incidence of lawsonia went up 300 percent,” he said.
There are two vaccines on the market and the use of those products quadrupled when antibiotics were lost for enteric disease.
The veterinarians promoted more conscientious animal care rather than reaching for drugs.
When an animal goes off its feed, it is probably getting sick. In feedlots, it is pulled and given antibiotics. Perhaps a quarter of them do not need an antibiotic, said Sibbel.
Supporting the immune system with proper nutrition, good bedding and low-stress animal handling is common practice at Cattle Empire in Kansas.
The company is the fifth largest feeding operation in the United States and employs two veterinarians full time.
Metaphylaxis treatment is used but veterinarian Tera Barnhardt hopes research can help determine illness sooner and deliver treatments more effectively.
New treatment systems are coming that can measure the right amount of medication to animals whether they are a day-old Holstein calf or a 1,200 pound steer.
“We have got to do a better job in animal health at measuring and benchmarking and how we are defining antibiotic stewardship,” said Barnhardt.
Defining stewardship is the task of a volunteer group at the not-for-profit Farm Foundation based in Illinois. It provides policy research and forums relating to agribusiness.
Joe Swedberg, recently retired from Hormel Foods, chairs the Antimicrobial Education Project working with various sectors of the food industry from producers to retailers for the last several years.
The group is meeting June 28 to finalize their definition for antibiotic stewardship that could be used by third party auditors and other groups to talk about the use of these medications.
Of particular concern is the number of local jurisdictions speaking out against antibiotic use in food animals.
In 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law to reduce routine use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry produced in that state.
Last year, San Francisco become the first U.S. city to require grocers with 25 stores or more to report annually the use of antibiotics in the raw meat and poultry they sell. The ordinance takes effect this April and it could affect 120 stores.
“The implementation of something like that, though they don’t have the legal grounds to do it, the danger is you can have producers asking what are you going to do with this information and where is the base line for this information?” Swedberg said.
“It could cause more damage than it does good.”
The foundation committee hopes to develop antibiotic information for the public that is easy to understand.
“People need to see both sides so they can make their educated decision,” he said.