Antibiotic resistance garners plenty of concern in hospitals and clinics, and those institutions often want to point a finger at a linkage between antibiotic resistance and the use of antibiotics on the farm.

“We have the same concern on the farm, and that is why swine veterinarians are out there making sure the antibiotics are being used correctly and judiciously,” observes Scott Hurd, DVM, Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, Iowa State University.

But the real issue of concern is not the same thing as risk, because risks can be quantified. “Concern could lead to risk management efforts that would not be justified if we did a good job of risk management,” he says.

“When the risk of antibiotic resistance in pork production is evaluated, the risk is very low,” he stressed at the Iowa State University Swine Disease Conference for Swine Practitioners in Ames last fall.

To truly document antibiotic resistance risk requires quantitative risk assessments to connect the causal pathways. When that is done, the results are clear-cut — there is miniscule risk to humans from pork, Hurd says.

“The problem is now FDA has essentially moved past an earlier guidance document with a new document released this past June, Guidance Document 209. What they did was deftly change the argument from whether there is a risk to say they don’t think it is judicious or prudent to use antibiotics on the farm for ‘production purposes,’” meaning routine use for growth promotion, Hurd says.

That wording changes the issue from potential risk of use of antibiotics to a precautionary decision by FDA that use is not judicious.

“That is why I anticipate that growth-promotion use of antibiotics — what FDA is currently calling production uses — is somehow going to disappear in the next few months,” Hurd predicts.

Trusting the Science

“We have to stand on the science, and the science is really clear that the risk to humans from our use of antimicrobials on the farm is very, very, very low — and we are never going to get to zero risk,” comments John Waddell, DVM, Sutton, NE.

Both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians believe practicing veterinarians need to stand behind the science, don’t give ground and tell their story about how far the pork industry has come in the past 2-3 decades, Waddell says.

The pork industry hasn’t just relied on the use of production antibiotics to improve animal health, but has also developed better vaccines, better health and management schemes and technologies, and embraced alternatives when they work, he says.

Producer Programs

“As pork producers, we do have a moral and ethical obligation to treat our pigs humanely and maintain their health and well-being, and we understand that antibiotics are an important part of that process,” says Craig Rowles, DVM, Elite Pork, Carroll, IA.

As such, producers welcome increased veterinary oversight and embrace training programs, such as the Pork Quality Assurance Plus and We Care principles. “We take them seriously in the way that we operate our businesses on a day-to-day basis,” he says.

Remember that the average consumer doesn’t care that the use of antibiotics helps producers lower their cost of production. “We have to understand that is not what drives the discussion. We have to make sure that we have displayed to the public that we carry the same ethical principles that they do, we care about the pork we produce, we care about the people we work with, we care about our community, and we care about the product we deliver,” Rowles adds.

And Iowa State’s Hurd says the strongest argument that can be made in favor of antibiotic use appears in two papers he recently completed, which show there is a danger to food safety in removing antibiotics from livestock and poultry production.