The use of antibiotics in livestock farming has quickly become one of the more popular topics of public debate. The notion that antibiotic use on livestock farms will somehow cause harm to human health is not new. The vigor in which these concerns and fears are being raised has increased. However, sentiment alone cannot be used to make effective public policy decisions. It extremely important for people to understand the true human health risk of these practices, as well as the alternative risks of policy actions that would eliminate antibiotics from agriculture’s tool box and increase animal illness and suffering.
For the record, there has never been a scientifically published risk assessment on-farm antibiotic use, using FDA methods, which demonstrates a meaningful risk to humans. In one risk assessment that I published, on a specific antibiotic widely used in cattle, swine, and poultry, I found there is considerably greater chance of being struck by lightning or dying from a bee sting than any risk of being harmed by livestock antibiotics. The chain of events that would have to occur for antibiotic resistance in humans from livestock is not only extensive, but extremely unlikely. That maybe somewhat surprising to many given most people have been fed a steady diet of information sharing “worries”, “concerns” and “fears” that livestock is the largest perpetrator in human antibiotic resistance. The reality is that concern does not equal risk. You may be worried or concerned that your next commercial flight will have a mechanical problem and crash, however, the true risk of that happening is minuscule. Concern over a health threat means we should study and watch. However the presence of a risk means we should take action to minimize.
The strategic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is cornerstone of preventing livestock disease. These products are critical to farmers and consumers alike as they aid in providing the safe food supply we currently enjoy. I have published three papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals demonstrating the close connection between animal health and the risk of human foodborne illness. The loss of these products through campaigns led by concern or fear, rather than facts would be detriment us all. The editorial “Wiser practices for farm antibiotics” which ran in the April 4 edition of the Lincoln Journal Star seemed to ignore these important points falling more into the worry and fear camp. The editorial cited Robert Lawrence at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as an authority on livestock antibiotics in espousing major concerns about antibiotic use. The editorial failed to note that Lawrence is also a founding director of the “Center for a Liveable Future” at Johns Hopkins, a think tank which is opposed to mainstream agriculture and common practices use by farmers to help feed you and your family, including antibiotics for livestock.
Very soon the Food and Drug Administration is will release new guidance on antibiotic use in livestock which will represent a significant change for farmers, ranchers and livestock feeders. These changes will likely lead to the end of antibiotic use for growth promotion, one of the more popular targets for critics. The guidance is also expected to increase the role of veterinary oversight in on-farm use of antibiotics. Much of this action by FDA is in response to concerns about on-farm antibiotic use. These changes will have a significant impact on farmer, and likely lead to an end of certain antibiotic uses.
Moving forward, I suggest that decisions made about antibiotic use must be founded in science and based on true risks to human health. Anything short of such approach will lead to true human harm by hampering the ability of agriculture to feed a growing population, one that includes you and me.