Even though it appears that legislative challenges to the availability of antibiotics for use in livestock production have been thwarted for this year, it’s no time to become complacent, declares an Iowa swine veterinarian.

“The antibiotics issue is a challenge and it isn’t going away,” charges Craig Rowles, DVM, owner of Elite Pork, an 8,000-sow, farrow-to-finish operation near Carroll, IA.

“Antibiotics have been cussed and discussed for the last 25 years, all the way back to the early 1980s, when I was finishing up veterinary school,” says the 52-year-old producer. He graduated from Iowa State University veterinary school in 1982 and worked at the Carroll Veterinary Clinic until 1996. Then he began raising hogs fulltime, choosing to own the hogs from farrow-to-finish on 22, five-acre sites within a 40-mile radius of his office in Carroll.

Judicious Use of Antibiotics

“As an industry, pork producers do a fabulous job of raising hogs, but an inadequate job of telling their story,” Rowles says. Most producers use antibiotics responsibly, working with their veterinarians and participating in the Pork Quality Assurance Plus and the We Care programs, focused on raising hogs safely and responsibly.

A common myth perpetrated by animal activists is that hog rations are pumped full of antibiotics. “We don’t even use antibiotics in feed in the sow farm at Elite Pork. However, we may use an antibiotic for an individual animal treatment,” he reports.

Pigs are weaned into the nursery at 19-20 days of age. That young stage of life represents a critical window in pig health, Rowles says. At that point, pigs may be placed on a feed-grade antibiotic for the prevention and control of disease. Lightweight and sick pigs are often moved to hospital pens, where they may receive additional injectable antibiotics.

At 55-60 lb., those pigs are moved to finishing, where antibiotics are used for nutritional efficiency, mostly through feed-grade application of antibiotics. Rowles emphasizes that the product he has selected has gone through a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) risk assessment.

“In regards to treatment, in my operation, I have decided to not use therapeutic antibiotics in a feed-grade application. Instead, I approach treatment via water or individual treatment in finishing because then I know I’ve got better control,” he says.

That practice significantly reduces the chance of antibiotic residues, important when topping off finishing pens to market, or marketing pork to Russia, which has a zero residue tolerance for tetracycline. All hogs are shipped to Tyson Foods of Perry, IA.

To be clear, antibiotics aren’t the only means of preserving animal health used by pork producers, he says. “There are a whole host of tools that are used in a health program, including vaccination, housing, ventilation and temperature control, biosecurity, sanitation, proper nutrition and good genetics.

“My point is, we don’t always reach for an antibiotic first, and this is something that producers aren’t getting credit for. But at the same time, despite the fact that we’ve built these systems that use all of these tools, there are still going to be times when animals need to be treated,” he says.

Nurseries vs. Day Care

A prime example of the need for pig care is the correlation between pig nurseries and human day care facilities. In both cases, groups are commingled at a time when their immune systems are not fully developed. When that happens, treatment may be necessary.

“At the nursery stage, during the pigs’ change of immunity, is a place where I think the use of feed-grade antibiotics has been appropriate and an important adjunct to other therapies, such as water or injectable antibiotics,” he adds.

When antibiotics are given to young pigs, they either prevent a subclinical disease from expressing itself, or change the flora in the intestinal tract, which allows the pigs to do a better job of absorbing nutrients. As a result, the young pigs grow faster, Rowles explains.

Call to Action

Antibiotic resistance is an important issue, and certain segments of the population are concerned that use of certain antibiotics in animal agriculture could lead to antimicrobial resistance in humans.

“It is a theory, and if the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture really were an important or major factor in that issue, we believe we would have seen it by now, after 30 years of use,” Rowles asserts.

But the recent onslaught of pressure means that pork producers and others must redouble their defensive efforts.

“The bottom line is we are facing industry regulatory and legislative processes that are giving greater and greater scrutiny to this issue, and we have a responsibility to do things right,” he says. He suggests producers start by:
• Stepping up and having direct contact with their legislators to educate them and let them know they are doing the right thing.
• Becoming involved with the National Pork Board’s Operation Main Street, speaking out to community groups on the conscientious way hogs are raised.
• Signing up for Pork Quality Assurance Plus and We Care programs.

Educating the Public

Rowles has given over 20 speeches through Pork Checkoff’s Operation Main Street to a variety of groups. “The interesting thing is, the questions asked at the Kiwanis Club in Harlan, IA, are the same questions being asked on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. My point is that our public doesn’t really understand what we do,” he explains.

Consumers are farther and farther removed from their roots, and as a result, many are ignorant of farming practices.

Rowles got a rude awakening himself a year or so ago when he gave a talk before the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). A CVM staffer asked him if it was true that producers pump tetracycline into the feed in order to plump up their hogs.

“That question came from someone who really should have known better, but if someone who works for CVM has that kind of misconception, what does that say about the average soccer mom in America?” he asks.

Denmark Experience

Everyone seems to think the Denmark experience with antibiotics should be a blueprint for U.S. producers, but Rowles says that is yet another common misconception. What he saw during a trip there in the early 2000s, after pig producers were banned from routine use of antibiotics, was increased animal suffering and more cases of diarrhea, specifically E. coli and ileitis. “It is rare to see ileitis in nurseries, but we saw it in several cases on our trip,” he says.

Denmark restricted use of common hog antibiotics, such as mecadox and tylosin, drugs that are rarely used in human medicine. When disease conditions flared, Danish producers were authorized to use therapeutic levels of other drugs critically important to human medicine (amoxicillin, trimethoprim, sulfamethoxazole), he says.

Rowles reminds that the original intent of the Danish ban on the routine use of antibiotics in pigs was designed to protect humans against increasing resistance to antibiotics in common pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter. However, disease reporting from Denmark over the last 10-12 years shows a marked increase in resistance to those kinds of pathogens in humans, he notes.

Evaluating the Level of Risk

Everything that we do in life involves a level of risk, from the car we drive to riding in an airplane or a taxi cab, Rowles points out.

There are risks associated with antibiotics — and there are also risks associated with taking them away. Besides possibly compromising animal health, there are potential risks associated with food safety from carcass contamination, he explains.

In the Iowa producer-veterinarian’s mind, what’s needed is more science to ferret out and better understand the risks of antibiotics to humans and animals alike.

Relying on the precautionary principle espoused by a variety of activist organizations would suggest that any risk must be addressed.

But just as we cannot eliminate risk from our everyday lives, neither can we eliminate the risk of using antibiotics based on current science, particularly when there is much to be gained in terms of animal and human health, he says.

Activists also suggest that fewer antibiotics would be needed in animals if producers would simply quit cramming and crowding pigs in pens.

“People forget the fact that one of the reasons we put pigs into climate-controlled environments is to prevent diseases. There are a lot of diseases that we don’t deal with regularly anymore because we put the pigs in buildings, including the salmonellas, swine dysentery, transmissible gastroenteritis, and a number of parasites and zoonotic diseases like trichinosis, toxoplasmosis and brucellosis.

“It also enabled us to produce a leaner pig with just a half-inch of backfat, which consumers signaled to our industry that they wanted,” he reminds.