Overusing antibiotics in human health contributes to resistant strains of bacteria. The same is true for farmers.

“Antibiotics, Antibiotic Resistance and Stewardship on the Farm,” a panel presented recently by FACT, shared the dangers of routine use of antibiotics among animals that do not need them.

Dr. Gail Hansen, veterinarian and epidemiologist with Hansen Consulting in Washington, D.C.; Madeline Kleven, FACT Safe and Healthy Food coordinator; and Steve Roach, FACT Safe and Healthy Food director, presented.

“At a basic level, bacteria can be killed by antibiotics,” Kleven said. “When it’s no longer susceptible, it becomes resistant. One of the primary drivers is the misuse or overuse of antibiotics.”

She quoted John Middleton, president of the Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region: “A future world where bugs are all resistant to antibiotics will return us to the dark days of ineffective healthcare and condemn many to early deaths. Animal health and human health must be equally protected to save our antibiotics.”

“A world where antibiotics no longer work is truly frightening,” Kleven said. “In order to protect people from antibiotic resistance, we need to protect animals as well. There’s a critical linkage between the two.”

On the side of human use of antibiotics, people have cut back, such as fewer parents demanding an antibiotic for their child’s virus. Kleven said that sales have remained stable since 2009, despite population growth; however, for livestock use, sales of medically important antibiotics nearly double those for human medication.

“We’re seeing resistance on farms and feedlots to drugs that are ‘last resorts’ for infections in humans,” Kleven said.

Each time an antibiotic is used in any setting, there’s risk for selecting bacterial strains. “It should be used only when absolutely necessary for protecting the health of the animal,” Kleven said. “The same is true with people. While there’s no stopping antibacterial resistance, we can slow it down and keep these medicines working for longer.”

The people most at risk for antibacterial resistance include farmworkers, meat processing workers, cancer patients, elderly people, children, those who are immunocompromised through health conditions or certain medications and people with chronic diseases.

Roach offered a breakdown of “who does what” for food and animal safety: “The FDA looks at the safety of animal drugs, particularly the Center for Veterinary Medicine. They also look at animal feeds – anything that treats a disease or modifies the structure of the body or diagnoses a disease or GMOs.

“The EPA monitors some medications. It used to be if you poured on a tick and flea medication and it was absorbed, it would be FDA and if it wasn’t, it was EPA. But they found it wasn’t clear.”

Animal drugs must be effective, safe for animals and pass human food safety review for residues, maximum residue limit, withdrawal period and USDA tests. In addition, the FDA has conducted an antibiotic resistance assessment.

“In some cases, it seems like the FDA isn’t great at looking at safety for things like growth hormones,” Roach said. “Those are used for production purposes.”

Antibiotics overuse builds resistance

The panelists recommended only providing antibiotics to sick animals and not as a preventive measure. Photo by Deborah J. Sergeant

The maximum drug residue refers to the safe threshold of what can end up in the meat. Most meat has some, but the FDA decides how much is safe for people.

Regarding the regulation of animal drugs, Roach said that farmers must use them for the correct animal, at the prescribed dosage and for the amount of time specified on the label. Most cannot be used right up until slaughter or with any lactating animals. Some drugs may be used off-label, but they require prescriptions with an established veterinarian-client/patient relationship.

Extra-label use is not legal for animal drugs given mixed into feed, even with a vet’s order, but Roach said that the FDA may overlook this for minor species. The FDA also regulates a change in indication, duration or dosage and any use of a human-approved drug in animals that’s extra-label. The FDA also prohibits certain drugs in food animals.

“We need to raise animals in a way where they don’t need antibiotics as much,” Roach said. While it’s fine for treating a diagnosed disease and curtailing an outbreak, he wants farmers to stop using antibiotics preventatively. He would like to have national targets for reducing antibiotics consumption in agriculture.

Hansen said that although the situation of antibiotics overuse is getting better, “things are bad.” She thinks that much of the driving force behind antibiotic overuse was the mindset of late 20th century agriculture: “Get bigger or get out.”

That mindset can also contribute to poor animal care and push producers to preventive use of antibiotics.

Hansen noted that the drugs don’t always breakdown in an animal’s system, meaning that they’re passed through the feces into the environment. “Composting helps, but not always,” Hansen said. “It’s not the cure-all for that.”

Decreasing use of antibiotics through promoting better animal care will help slow the development of more resistant bacterial strains. “We can reduce antibiotic use without compromising animal health,” Hansen said. “We can still preserve the effectiveness when we need it.”

She wants more farmers to realize that each time an antibiotic is used, it decreases its effectiveness for the next time it’s used because the bacteria evolve to adapt to the drug. “Every person or animal is a potential reservoir and amplifier for resistance,” Hansen said. This can have the unintended consequence of creating resistance.

The U.S. raises 100 billion animals for food consumption annually. Long-gone are the days of all of our food animals being raised on small, diverse farms. Hansen said that many people cling to that concept of farming and do not understand how large-scale farms operate – or how farming works in general.

She encourages farmers to work on educating the public about agriculture and on improving their own practices, including reserving antibiotics for only when needed, improving management, vaccinating and improving hygiene.

Before using an antibiotic, “make sure you have an accurate diagnosis,” Hansen noted. A sickly animal may have a food issue or have an illness caused by a virus, for example.

“Better farming and regenerative practices should be compensated,” Hansen said. “The Farm Bill is coming up. Contact your member of Congress. Look at what’s going on in your county, what kinds of policies can be done to decrease the amount of antibiotics. What can be done to help you farm with fewer antibiotics? Write letters to the editor to raise awareness.”

Because once antibiotics are no longer effective, “all you have is thoughts and prayers,” Hansen said.

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant