Livestock production and antibiotics

The American food production system, from the farm to the fork, has come under an increasing scope and intensity of scrutiny. Many have offered their opinions for solutions to different areas that they believe are in need of change, and regardless of the specific idea, such discussion and debate generally lead to a favorable outcome. At the very least, the populace becomes more educated and aware.

One of the current discussions is relative to the use of antibiotics in livestock. This issue is not new and has been discussed relative to its public health and food safety impacts for a number of years. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009 (PAMTA) has been one such forum for these discussions.

The overarching goal of both public health and food safety is to protect the health of the community as a whole. It is not to remove any potential to harm human health. While it is without question that the loss of any human life is traumatic, “zero risk” is simply not an attainable goal for either public health or food safety.

Obviously, it is to the experts to assess the risk, but here are a few bits of background for use in your personal analysis.

First, research has demonstrated that the risk of encountering an antibiotic resistance treatment failure in humans ranges from less than 1 in 10 million to 1 in billions.

For the sake of comparison, according to publicly available numbers, the annual risk of being killed in a plane crash for the average American is about 1 in 11 million. The annual risk of being killed in a motor vehicle crash for the average American is about 1 in 5,000.

There are many questions still to be answered, but here is just one more for now. Do antibiotics at low levels provide human health benefits by reducing the risk that animals might contaminate the food chain with significant bacteria?

Research seems to show that they do. In fact, according to an Institute of Food Technologists fact sheet, “It is estimated that 40,000 human illness-days per year are prevented by the continued use of an antibiotic to reduce bacterial illnesses within chicken flocks. For every day of human illness caused by antimicrobial use, an estimated 4,000 illness-days are prevented.”

If the discussion regarding the prohibition of various antibiotic uses in livestock is based on public desire, animal welfare, environmental impact, or something else, then the discussion can be framed in that manner. In “Survival of the Sickest,” Dr. Sharon Moalem describes a similar phenomenon in human medicine in which public opinion led to the prohibition of a scientifically valid medical practice.

“The medical community – even the general public – considered bleeding to be the epitome of everything that was barbaric about prescientific medicine … like so much else – the broad discrediting of bloodletting may have been a rush to judgment … it’s now absolutely clear that bloodletting is the treatment of choice for hemochromatosis patients.”

If the discussion is about scientific evidence of risk to human health, then the jury may still be out.

Stephen Crawford is New Hampshire state veterinarian.

Categories: Opinion