By Will Verboven Ahead of the Heard
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released recommendations that all but ordered livestock and poultry producers to stop using antibiotics to prevent sickness and disease in their food animals.
They trotted out that old hobby horse about the widespread preventative use of antibiotics in livestock causes the development of more resistant bacteria. They got the predictable media response they wanted – that being fear mongering headlines about a bacteria Armageddon. The same tiresome images of cattle feedlots and intensive poultry production systems were flashed across screens – no doubt to the horror of the average gullible city consumer. Was this real news? Well, not quite, but it placed WHO in a positive light as defender of the health of the planet – and isn’t that the feel-good image every UN agency and every self-appointed consumer lobby group wants to achieve? Unfortunately, such PR initiatives usually leave out inconvenient truths, common sense, perverse consequences and other such annoyances.
Animal agriculture has long accepted the belief that the overuse of antibiotics can contribute to bacterial resistance. It’s a universal reality not unique to livestock but to every species for that matter. It also occurs in plant science, with bugs and diseases all becoming slowly resistant to whatever is created, natural or unnatural, to control and destroy offending organisms.
It’s an evolutionary process that will continue whether or not the human race uses antibiotics or chemicals. The question with regard to whether or not to use antibiotics to prevent livestock diseases hinges on whether it would make any difference in the long run. The point being whether bacteria would stop their resistance evolution if they were no longer controlled by preventative antibiotic use. A perverse consequence will be that severely restricted use could mean that livestock and poultry would suffer by the millions from sickness and death from uncontrolled diseases. The financial implications and animal welfare consequences would be horrendous. It would seem that the WHO recommendations take no heed of those nasty repercussions. To be fair, WHO does state that antibiotics should be used therapeutically to treat illness and disease after it has been diagnosed, but that could be after an animal has perhaps become terminally debilitated and contagious to other animals. Most livestock producers would rather not have such a devastating situation develop.
The animal agriculture industry is aware of the negative images that have been portrayed by devious anti-meat, anti-food animal, and self-righteous lobby groups over the antibiotic use issue. Nefarious fast-food chains exploit the issue to their own advantage. The most notorious is the implication that antibiotics are used as a growth proponent by producers – that contrived falsehood has been debunked by research time and again.
Nonetheless, some poultry production sectors are planning to restrict the use of antibiotics for preventative use and are prepared to face the consequences, mostly notably in the intensive chicken meat business. Other livestock sectors such as cattle and hogs are not quite prepared to give up on using preventative antibiotics citing animal welfare concerns and production losses. But significant pressure is coming from meat retailers and the restaurant industry to adhere to trends and political correctness.
The case for using antibiotics to prevent illness and disease in food animals in specific risk situations is substantive from a number of approaches, but antibiotics are also expensive and are not universally used in all production systems. In spite of this, the demagoguery surrounding the issue continues, as demonstrated in the WHO report. The poultry industry has begun their restriction process by using a tiered approach toward reducing or eliminating the use of antimicrobials that are important to human use. The goal being that by the end of the process only antibiotics that are of no use to human health would be used in poultry health, and then only under veterinary prescription oversight. That careful incremental approach to reducing antibiotics may well become the template for other livestock sectors.
No, it’s not the ideal situation from an animal health and well-being perspective and yes, it will create financial and production losses in some situations. One hopes that new pharmaceutical and antimicrobial products will be developed that will serve the same purpose as the preventative use of antibiotics. Meanwhile, the writing has been on the wall for years and public perception, no matter how naïve and egged on by duplicitous health agencies and diabolical lobby groups, will only increase the anti-antibiotic campaign. Unfortunately, it seems that common sense will once again be devoured by the ravenous appetite of political correctness.