Veterinarians say eliminating antibiotics in animal agriculture is not an option, but other options should also be considered
Antibiotics are vital to treat human and livestock illness and protect health. The development of bacteria resistant to antibiotics threatens the sustainability of their use in the medical and veterinary fields.
Reducing the use of antibiotics, or antimicrobials in general, is a focus of widespread Canadian efforts in recent years. That reduction is expected to preserve the effectiveness of certain antibiotics important to fight infection.
“Antibiotics are one of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th century, but our tendency to overuse them has led to the spread of antibiotic resistance. Now we are in danger of running out of antibiotics that actually work,” said Dr. Jerome Leis, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and the lead for the Use Antibiotics Wisely campaign.
In a recent opinion piece, Leis said an estimated 14 Canadians die each day because of antibiotic resistant bacteria. He encouraged judicious use in human medicine, but the veterinary and livestock sectors are also engaged in plans to reduce the use of medically important antibiotics in farmed animals.
“We’ve been working on it collectively for a very long time,” said Dr. Aline Dimitri, executive director of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s animal health directorate.
She told those at a recent farmed animal health and welfare forum that a pan-Canadian action plan is well into development, and consultations on an action plan will be launched in January. The goal is to launch the plan in May.
The challenge of reducing the use of antimicrobials in livestock is to balance that with the need to maintain animal health and welfare, said Dr. Tye Perrett, a veterinarian and managing partner with Feedlot Health Management Services.
“Producers are interested in the long-term well-being of their animals, so that’s always the balance. You have an indication now where you need to use antimicrobials to treat animals or to prevent disease, recognizing that the overuse of them may have a longer-term impact. That’s a difficult balance, and I think producers do their best to manage that, and work closely with veterinarians to help figure that out.”
He said there are efforts to reduce preventive and clinical use of antimicrobials in feedlot animals. Regulations require such treatments to be prescribed by a veterinarian who has a relationship with the producer and operation using them.
Perrett said 97 percent of feedlot animals are given microbials, most of them ionophores that are not used in human medicine.
About 92 percent of that use is targeted to prevent or treat bovine respiratory disease.
However, management of animals before and when they enter a feedlot can reduce the risk of BRD, and technological advances can be used to monitor feedlot animals more closely so they can be individually treated if problems occur.
Eliminating the use of antimicrobials isn’t a viable option, said Perrett.
“Having an antimicrobial in the toolbox is an important thing, and to think that we can just take them out won’t work. I think we all know that. History has proved that, even in human medicine. So having them there is important. Adding things to the toolbox? Absolutely. Whether that’s husbandry practices, whether that’s opportunities for other non-antimicrobial products, any of that is certainly on the table. And there’s lots of research being done there.”
Mallory Gaines, manager of market access with the American Feed Industry Association, did a U.S. survey of veterinarians and producers about a Raised Without Antibiotics (RWA) type of production. Respondents were involved with broiler, turkey, swine, beef and dairy production and raised their animals either conventionally or without antibiotics.
Most who decided on RWA did so to fulfill clients’ or customers’ requests, Gaines said, and that was true across the five livestock sectors. The vast majority of those who did not use RWA said they rejected that method because of concerns about its potential negative effects on animal health and welfare.
While most respondents said food safety was reduced in RWA systems, they also felt customers perceive RWA to result in safer food.
A vast majority thought RWA worsened animal health and welfare while also believing customers thought it was much better for the animals, said Gaines.
However, producers who had used RWA thought it had less impact on animal welfare than did producers who raised livestock conventionally.
Those surveyed said RWA adds to costs and that current market demand does not justify that cost increase.