There is virtually no impact on public health from the routine use of animal antibiotics in feed, whether it be for growth promotion or nutritional efficiency, says Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

“Peer-reviewed assessments show that for the major groups of antibiotics used in feed for animal agriculture, particularly penicillin and tetracycline, the risk to public health is vanishingly small,” she adds.

Wagstrom’s response is to a lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Manhattan asking the court to declare that the Food and Drug Administration violated federal law by failing to withdraw approval for the subtherapeutic use of penicillin and tetracycline in animal feed.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in its review of Denmark’s ban on growth promotion use of tetractyclines in pigs did note that it was followed by an increase in tetracycline-resistant cases of salmonella in humans attributed to more use of the drug in pigs to treat postweaning diarrhea.

“But WHO said there was no human health issue because tetracycline would never be used to treat salmonella,” Wagstrom says. “The presence of antibiotic resistance does not mean that there is a negative human health impact.”

The broad-stroke approach of simply banning antibiotics for food-producing animals raises the specter of creating potential food safety hazards. “You are more likely to have pigs that have been sick and had to recover then entering the food supply that could lead to more peel-outs or more trim, and studies have shown these animal carcasses are more likely to be contaminated with salmonella and campylobacter,” Wagstrom says.

“This creates potential negative implications to public health and increased cost of production at a time when we really don’t need increases in food prices,” she emphasizes.

Contained in the lawsuit is the often-repeated fallacy that misuse and overuse of antibiotics in animals is leading to a dangerous growth in antibiotic resistance.

In fact, Wagstrom says, veterinarians prescribe so many fewer antibiotics today because animal facilities are designed for more strategic use of antibiotics “that promotes the health of an animal rather than makes it more difficult to control disease.”

Using best management practices prescribed in the Pork Checkoff’s Pork Quality Assurance Plus (PQA Plus) program, pork producers use antibiotics to treat illness, prevent disease, and also to allow pigs to grow better on less feed, which produces less manure, says Jennifer Koeman, DVM, director of Producer and Public Health for the National Pork Board.

“Pork producers work closely with veterinarians to develop a comprehensive herd health program, which may include antibiotics,” she adds.

As of May 2011, 52,308 producers achieved PQA Plus certification, which provides good production practices for producers and reinforces the responsible use of antibiotics, Koeman observes.