Commentary: Addressing antibiotic resistance requires cooperation

Issue Date: August 14, 2013
By Tom Talbot
Tom Talbot

There's no doubt about it: Antibiotic resistance in human medicine is a serious concern.

Despite what you may have heard, there is doubt about whether using antibiotics to care for farm animals creates or worsens antibiotic resistance in humans. Research shows the potential impact is quite small.

What we do know is this: Farmers and ranchers have an obligation to care for their livestock, and the conscientious use of antibiotics plays a crucial role in assuring animal health. At the same time, protecting animal health protects human health, by assuring that animals that enter the food chain are healthy.

As a veterinarian, I work with farmers and ranchers to help assure the health of food animals. Raising healthy animals depends on a number of factors, including proper nutrition, vaccines, shelter, hygiene and overall management of herd health. Farmers consult with veterinarians to create plans to prevent disease, and antibiotics can be a valuable part of those plans.

Antibiotics must be used carefully because their use can lead to resistant bacteria. That's one reason the government oversees use of antibiotics in agriculture. All antibiotics allowed for livestock use must pass significant review from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which requires proof that medicines are both safe and effective. Antibiotics are labeled for treatment of certain diseases or conditions at specific dosages for a specified time period. Through this careful process, veterinarians and farmers have access to the medicines we need to keep animals healthy while protecting human health.

FDA regulations undergo frequent updates. Right now, FDA is phasing out use of antibiotics used in human medicine for "subtherapeutic" purposes to promote growth in food animals. Soon, animals will be given antibiotics only for therapeutic purposes, at the direction of a veterinarian.

You may have heard assertions that the vast majority of antibiotics used in the United States are given to food animals. But keep in mind that more than one-third of the medicines used to treat animals are compounds known as ionophores. These medicines are not used by humans, so they have no impact on antibiotic resistance in humans.

Addressing antibiotic resistance in human medicine requires a comprehensive approach and cooperation among physicians, veterinarians, policymakers and government agencies assigned to oversee this complicated issue. Banning antibiotic use in livestock would not solve the problem of human resistance and might have other negative consequences for public health.

You can be sure that farmers, ranchers and veterinarians are aware of the concerns about antibiotics and work constantly to improve our knowledge about how to help food animals remain healthy. When antibiotics are required, we use only what is needed, when it is needed, to make sure animals don't suffer from illness.

Healthy animals are the key to healthy, humane and safe food.

(Tom Talbot, a large-animal veterinarian and rancher in Bishop, is former president of the California Cattlemen's Association and chairman of the Cattle Health and Well Being Committee for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. This commentary first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.