November 21, 2013

Antibiotics still work for us! Counter point to Consumers Reports Statement on Antibiotics in Food Animals


Official Statement from the American Society of Animal Science Board of Directors

Authored by: R.L. Preston, Ph.D., American Society of Animal Science Member

November 21, 2013

Yes, we can be thankful that antibiotics are still effective in humans and animals since they were discovered over 80 years ago.  The availability of antibiotics to treat infectious diseases is a medical miracle that has radically improved the health and well-being of both humans and animals, including pets.  Antibiotics are as important to animal health, well-being and productivity as they are in human health and well-being.  Bacteria have been exposed to antibiotics long before they were discovered in 1929.  They develop resistance to antibiotics as a defense mechanism.  This resistance has been shown in bacteria isolated from eons ago.  Antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria can be found in most anything in the environment.  All uses of antibiotics in humans and food animals create selective pressure that favors  antibiotic resistance among bacteria.

Some say we are closer than most of us realize to the time when bacterial infections can no longer be treated with antibiotics because of antibiotic resistance (“superbugs”).  Remember, however, that antibiotics have been used to treat infectious diseases for almost 70 years.  “Catastrophic” and “crisis” are words often applied to this and other issues and that evokes emotional, sensational, and oftentimes inflammatory reactions that distract the focus from the scientific goal of factual assessment and hypothesis testing by those responsible for public health.  The perception of increasing antibiotic resistance in humans from antibiotic use in food-animals appears to be more related to the large number of opinions and statements dealing with the subject rather than documented statistical evidence that resistance is increasing due to antibiotic use in food animals. Concern about antibiotic resistance is not equivalent to actual risk.


Denmark banned the use of antibiotics in food-animals in 1997, except by veterinary prescription.  In the five years following the ban, the total use of antibiotics in food producing animals decreased by only 30%, because there was a 41% increase in prescription use.  By 2012, veterinary prescription use in pigs increased about 115% and total antibiotic use in pigs was 80% of what is was before the ban.   During the five-year period, there was increased mortality in baby pigs and antibiotic resistance in isolates from ill humans increased from 18% to 46%.  This is a real-time result following a ban of health (growth) promoting antibiotics in food-producing animals.

Modern food-animal production facilities have improved the environment in which animals are raised and are much cleaner and healther than in former times.  The debate over whether antibiotic use should be restricted in animals centers on the demonstrated risk antibiotics pose to human health relative to their benefits in animals.  Antibiotics improve the health and well-being of animals that enhances their growth efficiency because antibiotics reduce nutrients required to combat subclinical diseases and bolster immune defense mechanisms.  The net health benefit of antibiotic use in food-producing animals was, and still is, measurable.  The economics of antibiotic use in food-animal production also facilitate an affordable and plentiful supply of meat, milk and eggs, providing the quality, nutrition and safety that consumer’s desire.  Because antibiotics are costly, this helps to prevent their overuse in food-animals.

Scientific advances are and will be the primary way that food production can keep pace with the increasing population in the U.S and the world.  After adequate risk evaluation and regulatory approval, their application must be based on the benefits to be gained, including economic benefits, relative to any risk, real or perceived.