Monday, July 19, 2010

The AVMA Supports Mis-Use of Antimicrobials

Howie heading outThe FDA has recently suggested that livestock producers only use antimicrobials (like antibiotics) for the treatment of disease. If that sounds reasonable, well then you must not be the livestock industry or the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association). Both believe the use of antimicrobials are integral to both human and animal health.

The AVMA testified in front of legislators that "the AVMA is committed to providing consumers with the safest food possible and to protect human health against the current risks without compromising the health of food animals".

In fact, the AVMA has a FAQ to help dispel "myths" about antimicrobial-resistant bacteria and the use of antimicrobials in the livestock industry.

From their FAQ: "They are most commonly used to prevent or treat disease and infections due to microorganisms."

This may be true in the context of companion animals, but it is a false statement in regards to livestock. The overwhelming majority of antimicrobial use in livestock occur for the following reasons:
* Growth: Antimicrobials, including antibiotics, increase the rate of growth, reduce economic loss due to extra feed, and reduce the age at slaughter while increasing weight at slaughter
* Disease caused by management practices: In lieu of treating individual animals, producers must treat entire herds and flocks because of housing techniques and feeding practices that increase the risk of disease. For example, 83% of feedlots raising cattle administer subtherapeutic levels of antimicrobials or use antibiotics to treat diseases caused by an improper diet (diarrhea from grain consumption, an unnatural food product for ruminants) and housing (respiratory illnesses brought on by close confinement and dust) or as a growth promotant. Cattle on cow-calf operations, which are traditionally free-range breeding operations, do not have such a problem and do not use antibiotics so freely.

It is not profitable or economically feasible to administer individual treatments of antibiotics. If you have a turkey who is ill in a shed with 10,000 other turkeys, are you going to a) treat the whole flock; b) not treat the individual; or c) isolate the individual for a 7-10 course of antibiotics? If you are most producers, you are going to do a or b. Doing a is not a judicious use of antibiotics, no matter how you cut it.

Nearly all the feed that chickens (on both broiler and egg laying farms) and turkeys consume contain antimicrobials. These act as growth promotants (hormones cannot be given to chickens) and reduce the risk of coccidia, a common problem amongst intensely confined poultry.

It is disingenuous, at best, for the AVMA to claim that the majority of antibiotic use in the livestock sector is to treat individuals. It is not. While there may not be accurate data on how many pounds of antibiotics are used, estimates range from 30-70% of antibiotics are used in the livestock sector and primarily as growth promotants rather than therapeutically.

AVMA: In fact, the vast majority of antibiotic classes are used in both humans and animals, so there really is no such thing as "human drugs used in animals."
Ava eyeing the camera
This is a diversionary tactic by the AVMA. They are sidestepping the actual question. Should we be using antibiotics approved for humans in non humans to make them grow faster, gain weight quicker, or be cured of disease brought on by standard management practices? I wager most of you who care one iota about the integrity of our antibiotics would answer no. This affects us all - even if you avoid consuming animals fed antibiotics, you cannot avoid the side effects of their mis-use. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria do not care; they'll kill you dead just the same.

Recently, a five year study in France revealed that the cows there are rife with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  52% of recovered Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni) and 88% of Campylobacter coli (C. coli) were resistant to tetracycline. 70% were resistant to fluoroquinolone (at the start of the study, that number was 29%). Campylobacter is the most common case of gastroenteritis in the world. Guess what antibiotics are used to treat its infection in humans? Tetracycline and quinolones.

The AVMA is technically correct: we have legally sanctioned the use of similar (and the same) antibiotics in humans and non humans (and primarily subtherapeutically in non humans). So let me ask you this: If you have gastroenteritis, do you want the tetracycline and fluoroquinolone used to treat your disease also used en masse in non humans who harbor tetracycline/quinolone-resistant bacteria?

AVMA: Current science doesn't really prove what causes the types of antimicrobial resistance that create public health risks.

Smoke and mirrors! It's true, current science doesn't prove all the causes of antimicrobial resistance. We know that humans have improperly used antibiotics, prescribing them as a preventative measure rather than a response to disease. This is poor health management. We know that the use of antibacterial soaps increases the risk of antimicrobial resistance the same way the overuse of ANY antimicrobial increases the risk. We know bacteria can undergo genetic modification regardless of the use of antibiotics.

And we know that the use of antibiotics in livestock - 50 billion of them worldwide - increases the potential of antimicrobial resistance.

How we wish to parcel out the blame is certainly up in the air. It is, however, inexcusable to claim that the rampant use of antimicrobials in livestock isn't playing a role. A parachute may slow your descent, but it doesn't stop gravity from bringing you to earth. Let's be realistic and honest, AVMA.

I mean, here is a short list of organizations that believe the use of subtherapeutic and inappropriate therapeutic use of antibiotics in non humans is causing human problems:
* The World Health Organization
* The don't-do-much-FDA
* The American Medical Association
* The Union of Concerned Scientists
* Center for Science in the Public Interest
* The Pew Institute
* John Hopkins School of Public Health
* 357 human/animal health/welfare, etc. organizations

Who sits with the AVMA in opposition? The National Pork Producers. The Cattlemen's Association. Tyson Foods (which settled a lawsuit about it's false advertising claims of "raised without antibiotics" while raising chickens with antibiotics). Just about all the factory farmers who will see a massive economic hit if they can't slip millions of pounds of antibiotics to their diseased, suffering, confined animals. Not exactly great bedfellows, if your end goal is good human and decent animal health.

Antibiotics should ONLY be used to treat disease in the individual human or non human. Period. End of story. Antimicrobials that may lead to the increase in antimicrobial-resistant bacteria or fungi should only be used to treat disease in the individual human or non human. Period. And if the way we raise animals results in 50-80% of them getting sick enough to require the use of antibiotics, then we are doing something wrong.

It's fine if the AVMA wants to take this position. They should just be honest about the fact they care more about livestock producers than about the pigs, cattle, chickens, turkeys themselves OR about the mounting evidence that some antibiotic-resistant bacteria exist because we mis-use and without discretion administer large amounts of antibiotics to animals.


YesBiscuit! said...

Antibiotics make animals grow?

Jennie said...

According to the FDA and a lot of research, they do. There's a lot of studies out there on it, a quick Google Scholar search will give you lots of info.

Unknown said...

Absolutely! They were originally used in chicken flocks and folks saw a dramatic increase in the animals' growth rate.

They are used at subtherapeutic levels, meaning they aren't at a high enough dosage to treat any illness but enough to suppress microbial growth and improve the growth rate of the animal.

They are used extensively in chicken, turkey, and pig industries as well as on feedlots.

YesBiscuit! said...

A couple related links that just crossed my inbox:,0,5448653.story

Suzanne said...

The old adage 'follow the money' comes to mind when looking at the list of who's for and against. It's also telling that you almost never see this type of antibiotic use in small farms - it's only on the large, industrialized farms.

It's encouraging to see that link about the hospital that only buys antibiotic-free meat. Now if we could only get the word out and get people to stop using antibacterial handsoap...