Livestock producers today face pressures that are not the normal economic and resource challenges faced by all businesses. Farmers and their veterinarians often wonder: “How did I become the villain when I am just trying to feed people as efficiently as possible?” or “Why is the use of medicine (e.g., antimicrobials) to prevent and relieve animal suffering considered by some to be an antisocial behavior?”
I will not delve into the “whys” of this political pressure, other than to say that much of the concern about public health risk from antimicrobial use is driven by the values and feelings of an extreme political agenda.
Certainly there is concern that antimicrobial use does create or select for a resistant population of bacteria, and those resistant genomes may find their way from western Nebraska to a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich in New Jersey, for example.
As a result, the 250-lb. welder who eats that sandwich and gets sick with a resistant bacteria, then goes to the doctor, who prescribes an antibiotic similar to the one used on the farm, resulting in him being ill for a few extra days.
If we calculate the probability of that scenario and its many versions occurring across the U.S. population, a risk assessment would determine that it is possible, but the risk is very low.
There are a few key facts that a swine veterinarian can use when educating producers, buyers and consumers about antimicrobial use:
- All scientific risk assessments published to date have shown a negligible risk to humans from resistant bacteria resulting from food animal antibiotic use.
- Failure to prevent or treat animal illness causes unnecessary animal suffering and death.
- Animals with residual effects of illness are more likely to cause human foodborne disease.
- Prudent, legal antimicrobial use with documentable veterinary oversight is a key to avoiding further restrictions.
Risk is a combination of two key elements: probability of an event occurring and the consequence of an event having occurred. When scientists have calculated the risk using this scenario, the probability of an adverse consequence (i.e., extra days of diarrhea) is very low.
It is interesting that those worrying about antimicrobial use have never published a peer-reviewed risk assessment. They just talk about what “might happen.”
I am not saying there is zero risk from on-farm antimicrobial use, but the risk is very low. If our society accepts that risk, the benefit must be greater than the risk.
There was a time when our society felt that if a policy was good for the animals, measured by improved growth, then it should be a benefit for all.
However, today we must argue the benefit from different perspectives, such as animal welfare and public health.
Swine veterinarians need to emphasize the consequences of delaying treatment or failing to prevent an epidemic pig infection. Society needs to understand that “meat without drugs” or “antibiotic-free meat” may have very negative consequences to our pig patients. Meat without drugs may mean “animals without medicine.”
Public Health Risk
A relatively new area of scientific inquiry is the question of whether pig health is quantitatively correlated with public health risk (see Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, The Direct Relationship between Animal Health and Food Safety Outcomes).
Slogans promote the concept that “healthy animals make safe food,” which is a concept we all “feel.” But the research is just beginning, and much more is needed. However, a recent report showed that a pig carcass with a peel-out (pleuritis or adhesions) is 90% more likely to be positive for salmonella just before it enters the cooler.
Finally and most importantly, the veterinary profession, at all costs, must maintain the public trust by promoting and documenting appropriate use of all medicines in the food supply. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the producers and the packers are counting on us.
Doctors of human medicine receive tremendous pressure to improve antimicrobial prescription practices. Veterinarians are applying the same rigor to drug use in livestock production.
Most consumers greatly trust veterinarians, but most don’t understand that they are involved in the use of antimicrobials.
There is a sculpture at Iowa State University called the “Gentle Doctor,” with this inscription by Frank K. Ramsey, DVM: “The Gentle Doctor reflects concern, affection, love, and the significance of life for all of God’s creatures — great and small.”
We need to help consumers understand “the Gentle Doctor” is on duty.
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