An Ounce of Prevention: Antibiotics in Agriculture

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Historically, antibiotics have been used in animal agriculture and human medicine to treat illness, and they have had a remarkable impact on our ability to improve the health of humans and animals alike. However, there are real concerns about the overuse of antibiotics in human and animal medicine, specifically as it relates to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

In recent years, the animal agriculture industry has placed a high importance on antibiotic stewardship to ensure these critical drugs continue to be effective at fighting bacterial diseases. The FDA has issued new guidance on the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, with the goal to phase out the use of antibiotics for production purposes, i.e. growth promotion. Additionally, the FDA wants to ensure the judicious use of antibiotics when used to treat and prevent animal diseases by requiring that antibiotics be administered under the supervision of a veterinarian.

There are two important points here: that medically important antibiotics will no longer be allowed for growth promotion and any allowed therapeutic use of a medically important antibiotic must be done under the care of a veterinarian. This is key because animals, just like people, get sick too. When this happens, the use of antibiotics is needed to treat the disease and prevent it from spreading to other

Why is antibiotic use for disease prevention important? Using antibiotics in targeted ways to prevent disease is key to minimizing antibiotic use overall. In fact, some countries where antibiotics have been banned for disease prevention use, such as Denmark, have actually seen a rise in the use of antibiotics in recent years.

Now, you’ll hear critics say that producers will continue to use antibiotics for growth promotion, but use it under the guise of “prevention.” The truth is that disease prevention is critical for animal health. Under the new rules, this must be done under veterinary oversight, meaning that producers must have a prescription. Veterinarians have the expertise to know when medication is needed for prevention – they understand how production practices impact animal health and how infections are likely to spread.

Here’s what the FDA has to say about their new rule in regard to disease prevention:

“When determining the appropriateness of a prevention use, veterinarians consider several important factors such as determining the medical rationale for such use, and that such use is appropriately targeted at a specific etiologic agent and appropriately timed relative to the disease. For example, if a veterinarian determines, based on the client’s production practices and herd health history, that cattle being transported or otherwise stressed are more likely to develop a certain bacterial infection, preventively treating these cattle with an antimicrobial approved for prevention of that bacterial infection would be considered a judicious use. …  The decision to use a specific drug or combination drug is generally based on factors that veterinarians are uniquely qualified to consider, including the mode of antibacterial action, drug distribution in specific tissues, and the duration of effective drug levels at the site of infection.”

Antibiotic stewardship is an important goal in safeguarding the effectiveness of these drugs, but it does no good to severely limit their use in animal agriculture. Ethically, producers should and do treat sick animals. But preventing disease in the first place is better for livestock in the short-term and can help prevent antibiotic resistance in the long-term.

Related resources: Get additional perspectives from experts here and here.