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Published August 06, 2012, 10:14 AM

Alternatives to antibiotics

For 60 years, U.S. livestock producers have used antibiotics to help keep their animals healthy. The practice has drawn criticism for nearly as long.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

For 60 years, U.S. livestock producers have used antibiotics to help keep their animals healthy. The practice has drawn criticism for nearly as long.

Today, with concern continuing to mount over the use of antibiotics to treat animals, there’s growing interest in finding alternatives.

“We need to take advantage of opportunities to develop new technologies (in animal health),” says Cyril Gay, national program leader for animal health with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md.

For instance, advancements in animal genomes (or hereditary information) could accelerate potential breakthroughs in alternatives to antibiotics, he says.

Many in production agriculture say alternatives ultimately could play a big role. But they also say antibiotics remain essential, at least for now.

“Producers certainly need to be open-minded to alternatives,” says Randy Spronk, a pork producer in Edgerton, Minn., and president-elect of the National Pork Producers Council.

But producers also need to treat animals properly, which sometimes requires antibiotics, he says.

A wide range of available viable alternatives, however, is also a concern for producers.

“I absolutely support the research (into alternatives),” says Gerald Stokka, associate professor of livestock stewardship at North Dakota State University. “But I’m not confident of when they might be available for widespread use.”

Critics say livestock producers overuse antibiotics.

“Most of the current antibiotic use stems from the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions of industrial meat production, and the pressure for factory farms to produce animals as fast as possible to remain financially viable,” says Elisabeth Holmes, staff attorney with the Center for Food Safety, an environmental and public health organization based in Washington, D.C. “With less confinement, and greater adherence to natural growth cycles, antibiotics become unnecessary.”

Many livestock producers disagree.

“Although some of the currently available products have been very helpful in managing the poultry house environment so that disease can be reduced, no products are available that could be used as a true alternative to therapeutic antibiotics,” says Dr. John Glisson, director of research programs for the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, based in Tucker, Ga.

Researchers’ take

Gay stresses that antibiotics will continue to play a significant part in animal health for the foreseeable future.

“First and foremost, antibiotics still have a crucial role,” he says.

But it’s important to continue to look for alternatives, both in the short- and long-term, he says.

Gay will be among the speakers at an international symposium Sept. 25 to 28 in Paris at the headquarters of the World Organization for Animal Health. “Alternatives to Antibiotics: Challenges and Solutions in Animal Production” will bring in researchers from around the world. They’ll examine issues such as the role of the microbiota in enteric diseases and allergies and the ruminal microbiome and animal health.

The symposium will help researchers get a better handle on where opportunities exist to develop and expand alternatives, he says.

Rachel Endecott, Montana State University Extension Service beef cattle specialist, says she plans to study the research after it’s presented at the Paris symposium. Innovative ranchers in her state will consider alternatives to antibiotics as they become available, she says.

She stresses that Montana cattle producers use antibiotics “judiciously” and follow label directions carefully.

What producers say

Many livestock producers say they need to do what’s best for their animals, which sometimes means using antibiotics.

“The question is, what’s humane?” says Dale Lueck, an Aitkin, Minn., cattleman and a spokesman for the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association. Failing to care properly for an animal, which includes using antibiotics when necessary, would be inhumane and unacceptable, he says.

Livestock producers are happy to consider alternatives to antibiotics when alternatives exist, says Steve Olson, head of both the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and the Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota, based in Buffalo, Minn.

Nonetheless, alternatives continue to be vital, Olson says.

Still, some livestock producers say antibiotics’ role can be reduced substantially. Lynn Brekke, who’s been raising cattle organically for a decade near Moorhead, Minn., says reducing concentration and avoiding confinement is essential to animal health.

He says he uses antibiotics only when necessary to save an animal’s life and that an animal treated with antibiotics is no longer considered organic.

What veterinarians say

Veterinarians stress the importance of preventing illness in animals.

“Prevention is what we really emphasize,” says Stokka, the NDSU professor of livestock stewardship and once a practicing veterinarian in Cooperstown, N.D.

The American Veterinary Medical Association’s “judicious uses principles” includes the following:

•Preventive strategies, such as appropriate husbandry and hygiene, routine health monitoring and immunization, should be emphasized.

•When the decision is reached to use antimicrobials (a class of drugs that includes antibiotics) for therapy, veterinarians should strive to optimize therapeutic efficacy and minimize resistance to antimicrobials to protect public and animal health.

But the American Veterinary Medical Association also is interested in the use of alternatives, says Christine Hoang, assistant director of the association’s division of scientific activities.

Her organization is working with USDA and the Food and Drug Administration to explore alternatives to antimicrobials.

Quick history lesson

FDA first approved the use of antibiotics in farm animals in 1951 based on research showing chickens, pigs and livestock put on extra weight when their feed included antibiotics.

Today, livestock and poultry account for roughly half of annual U.S. agricultural receipts, with livestock and poultry receipts reaching $141 billion in 2010. Many, though not all, livestock producers say those lofty numbers wouldn’t be possible without antibiotics.

But critics have charged for decades that using antibiotics in animal health is risky. In 1969 a committee of U.S. government experts concluded that it contributed to antibiotics’ resistance in humans.

The issue has been hotly debated ever since. Through the years, regulators in both the U.S. and Europe have placed various restrictions on the use of antibiotics in livestock.

In 1999, for instance, the European Union issued a ban on using popular human antibiotics in animals for growth promotion because of risks to humans.

In January, FDA ordered limits on cephalosporin antibiotics administered to animals. The drugs are used to treat pneumonia and other diseases in humans.

In April, FDA outlined plans to phase out non-medical use of more than 200 antibiotics in animals over three years. The voluntary plan requires cooperation by drugmakers and farmers.

FDA says the routine use of antibiotics in animals produces drug-resistant bacteria that can infect humans.

Critics stress ‘mindset’

Opponents of FDA’s April decision say it didn’t go far enough.

“Antibiotic resistance is skyrocketing,” says Holmes, with the National Center for Food Safety. “There are limited classes of antibiotics available to treat human illnesses. It is inexcusable that our health treatment options are being diminished and in some cases eliminated so livestock producers can raise and sell more animals more quickly.

“Antibiotics’ value is in treating human illnesses,” she says.

The Animal Approved Welfare program, based in Alexandria, Va., is another critic of using antibiotics to treat animals.

Organized in 2006, the organization says it “opposes the routine use of antibiotics” and “audits and certifies family farms raising their animals humanely, outdoors on pasture or range.”

The program works with about 1,500 producers operating about 1 million acres, says Andrew Gunther, program manager. Moving away from the use of antibiotics in animal health is a realistic, achievable goal, he says.

“It’s a mindset.”

What manufacturers say

A little background:

Antibiotics are medicines, such as penicillin, that come from fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms. They can kill or slow the growth of other microorganisms and are used to treat and prevent infectious diseases.

Penicillin — the term was coined in 1942 — saved thousands of lives in the early 1940s, many of them wounded soldiers in World War II.

Today, antibiotics are “an important tool to prevent, control and treat disease in animals,” according to information from the Animal Health Institute, the Washington, D.C.-based organization that represents the companies that manufacture animal health products.

Animal medicines are required by law to meet certain requirements before they go to market, according to the institute. The FDA reviews and approves antibiotics used for food-producing animals.

It has been reported widely that animals account for 80 percent of all the antibiotics used in the U.S. The Animal Health Institute says that number is misleading because the methodology used to calculate human and animal uses are “wholly different.”

The organization also says that 35 percent of the use of antibiotics attributed to animals is for compounds not used in human medicine.

What the future holds

The sharp difference of opinion over the use of antibiotics in animal health may never be resolved.

To supporters of their use such as Olson, the head of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and the Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota, antibiotics are “a crucial part of our toolbox.”

To critics such as Gunther, with Animal Approved Welfare, antibiotics contribute to the “poisoning” of the world’s food supply.

But Gay, the USDA researcher working on alternatives, points out something that few would dispute: With the global population at 7 billion and growing, the world’s need for food continues to increase. Given that, and acknowledging that antibiotics continue to have a necessary role, “We need to explore the opportunities for alternatives,” he says.

More information on the Paris symposium: www.alternativestoantibiotics.

org.

The website has information about alternatives developed by the Agricultural Research Service. The website also says it eventually will include links to other sites that deal with alternatives.

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