Recently proposed regulations could further restrict use and increase oversight of the antimicrobials that enable livestock to grow healthy and efficiently.
In a recent webchat hosted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (www.fooddialogues.com
), consumers had the opportunity to hear from both a registered dietician and an animal health expert and to join in with their own questions and concerns regarding antibiotic use in the animals that enter our food supply.
Julie Funk is the Online Master of Science in Food Safety Program director and an associate professor of pre-harvest food safety in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University.
As a large animal veterinarian, she worked primarily with swine, and she also pursued research interests in food safety epidemiology, particularly related to antimicrobial use and resistance.
Funk explained how an absence of sound data on the use level of antibiotics has left room for people to make their own assumptions of how much is used on farms.
Melissa Joy Dobbins, registered, licensed dietitian, agreed with Funk.
“What I hear [from patients and clients] a lot is that animals are routinely fed antibiotics,” she said, going on to say how the labeling of food as raised without antibiotics leads some consumers to believe that this is a good choice and meat and milk products without that label are a bad choice for their families.
“Women, especially moms, are concerned about antibiotics in food,” Dobbins added.
“All of our food…it’s more than just nourishment. We have an emotional connection.”
People want to know the facts and they want to know who to trust.
She felt that hearing from producers and veterinarians could help provide her patients with the tools needed to make informed decisions. “Food safety is the bottom line,” she said.
The following are questions consumers submitted during the live chat, accompanied by the answers fielded by Funk and Dobbins.
ARE THERE ANTIBIOTICS IN MEAT AND MILK?
According to Funk, the risk of antibiotics showing up in food is “almost zero.”
Pointing out the strict guidelines for use and withdrawl that producers and veterinarians must adhere to, she also acknowledged quality assurance programs initiated by producers themselves to improve food safety and wholesomeness.
Recalling her experience as a veterinarian on hog facilities, she explained how producers follow standard operating protocols and label directions, along with keeping detailed records of treatment to prevent antibiotic residues in meat.
WHY ARE ANTIBIOTICS IN THE FEED?
“It is a much more humane way to treat animals when you are trying to prevent disease,” Funk said.
Comparing administering antibiotics to animals like giving medicine to children, she pointed out that this can be a stressful event for both parties.
By adding antimicrobials to feed, this provides a less stressful, more efficient way to get them what they need to prevent disease.
HOW DO YOU PREVENT ONE ANIMAL FROM GETTING TOO MUCH?
Again, Funk explained how young animals are like children in school. As children are grouped by grade, livestock are also grouped by age.
Because of this, the feeding ration can be precisely calculated to provide the nutrients for the number of animals in a group and tailored to their developmental needs.
Like any other feed ingredient, the antimicrobials are added at a precise dose.
HOW ARE ANTIBIOTICS USED IN DIFFERENT SPECIES?
The differences in use of antibiotics are less defined by species and more determined by age.
Younger animals that are used for meat like growing pigs, chickens and young turkeys, again, are grouped together, and we often use in-feed or in-water antibiotics, Funk said.
Because these animals are going through the same stages of life together, they are exposed to and susceptible to the same diseases, much like children attending school are exposed to bugs or sickness.
For breeding animals, antibiotic treatment is more individualized to specific needs.
WHY IS THERE CROSS-OVER BETWEEN ANTIMICROBIALS USED FOR HUMANS AND ANIMALS?
“We are often infected with similar types of bacteria,” Funk responded.
“The same antimicrobials that are used to treat us are effective on animals as well.”
For example, tetracycline and penicillin are commonly heard-of human medications that also are used for livestock.
WHY IS IT OKAY TO MEDICATE ANIMALS THAT ARE NOT SUFFERING FROM ACTIVE INFECTIONS?
“We may be battling a new type of disease that we don’t have vaccines for or suffering from another event on the farm,” she explained.
The consequence of not preventing disease could be the death of the animals, and to wait until an animal is sick to treat it is not as effective as prevention.
“We do this selectively in a preventative way because we know that to wait for an outbreak would cost more in animal health and well-being as well as in production for the producer,” she added.
Dobbins joined in, asking how antibiotics are used for growth promotion.
Funk explained that they work by not only preventing disease, but they also help to improve nutrient efficiency during digestion, something that Dobbins could relate to her patients and clients.
WHAT OVERSIGHT IS THERE FOR ADMINISTERING ANTIBIOTICS TO FARM ANIMALS? HOW INVOLVED ARE ETERINARIANS?
Some antibiotics require a prescription, while others do not. Some of this use is historical, according to Funk, because some of these products have been on the market for over 60 years.
However, she noted that the majority of producers identify veterinarians as their go-to consultant on whether or not to use certain antibiotics, whether or not they require veterinarian oversight.
Use and labeling are directed by the Food and Drug Administration, and there are no economical benefits to not following those guidelines, Funk said.
WHAT IS ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE AND DOES IT RELATE TO ANTIBIOTICS BEING USED IN ANIMAL AGRICULTURE?
The number one reason we use antibiotics is to kill the bacteria that is making us sick, and that goes for both humans and animals, Funk stated.
Antibiotic resistance is not a new phenomenon.
It is a natural, evolutionary approach for bacteria to survive in their environments.
People are concerned about animal agriculture as a source for this, but Funk added, “We can’t discern which direction the resistance came from.”
“Right now our evidence is really unclear what if any small amount of antibiotic resistance in human infections is the result of animal antibiotic use,” she said.
We do know that this is happening because we are using antibiotics all around us, including sanitizers and hand soap.
On the animal side, judicious use has been promoted through prevention and proper treatment to reduce risk.
She pointed out antibiotic resistance is a problem for veterinarians as well because they are concerned for animal health.
For more questions from consumers and answers from experts on antibiotic use in livestock, visit www.fooddialogues.com
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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