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Shift focus to responsible antibiotic use, not arbitrary reductions

How can misconception around antibiotic use be solved through more discussions with the public?

30 January 2019, at 12:06p.m.

Some retailers and foodservice companies are asking for animals that have never received antibiotics (“no antibiotics ever” or NAE), but that request fails to recognise that animals – like people – get sick.

That puts veterinarians in a corner, according to Joel Nerem, DVM, Pipestone Veterinary Services, Pipestone, Minnesota.

Joel Nerem, DVM, Pipestone Veterinary Services, Pipestone, Minnesota © Pig Health Today

“‘No antibiotics ever’ has become a very effective marketing tool,” for some retailers and foodservice companies, he told Pig Health Today. He thinks a lot of this is driven by misconceptions about why and how antibiotics are used on the farm.

“When you talk to consumers, they say, ‘I want to purchase meat that’s been raised without antibiotics.’ But when you start talking to them about the animals themselves – the fact that animals can become ill and need a veterinarian to diagnose and treat those illnesses, just like a human being seeks assistance from a physician – then they understand.

“It’s about helping educate the consumer that we’re using antibiotics for the best interests of the animal,” Nerem added.

The veterinarian believes it’s also important to share with consumers how the animal industry is using antibiotics responsibly. The new veterinary feed directive rules put in place in January 2017 provide an additional level of security by putting antibiotics under a veterinarian’s supervision.

“As a veterinarian, my concern is about the welfare of the animal and being able to demonstrate that we’re using these antibiotics responsibly. That’s very important in order to maintain their availability,” Nerem said.

Role of antibiotics

He acknowledged that while antibiotic resistance is a concern in human and animal medicine, the issue is widely misunderstood by scientists and consumers alike. Because of that, misconceptions about on-farm antibiotic use have emerged, and some think animals should be deprived of antibiotics altogether or, at the very least, only get them when they’re sick.

He noted that under a veterinarian’s judgement, an antibiotic can and should be used to prevent disease when there’s a high probability of infection, Nerem explained. Because it’s in the best interest of the animal, he hopes veterinarians will continue to have that option – if for no other reason than to maintain animal well-being.

“Producers and veterinarians are very sensitive to this issue,” he said. “We at Pipestone and others in the pork industry are working extremely hard to develop new and better methods of raising animals in order to facilitate improved health.”

That doesn’t mean the pork industry should arbitrarily stop or reduce antibiotic usage, however.

“We don’t believe arbitrary reductions of antibiotics are in the best interests of the animal,” he said.

“We’ve chosen to take an approach not aimed at reduction but at increasing our efforts to promote responsible use. We want to change the conversation about antibiotics to one that talks about responsible use.”

Pipestone’s two-pronged project

One of the initiatives that Pipestone has put forth is the “Pipestone Antibiotic Resistance Tracker,” a tool to measure antibiotic use on the farm, as well as to track antimicrobial resistance across veterinary pathogens over time.

Nerem’s colleague – Pipestone research director Scott Dee, DVM, PhD – is heading up some projects that will measure usage on farms and how that may relate to resistant organisms, Nerem explained.

The idea is to make science-based decisions on antibiotic management, as well as to track resistance and make proactive changes to practices if increased resistance was shown.

Nerem also noted it’s not the pork industry’s goal to rely on antibiotics, but they’re necessary tools that veterinarians need in their toolbox. The industry continues to develop new technologies that lead to reduced infection rates and healthier pigs, so producers can ultimately raise animals that require fewer antibiotics.

Helping consumers understand

Animal activists often criticize the methods used in modern pork production, including housing. While that message has resonated with some consumers, Nerem added, many people outside of agriculture don’t understand the health and welfare benefits of keeping pigs indoors, where they’re protected from the elements, predators and some diseases. Livestock buildings also keep animals from being exposed to parasites and make it easier for managers to identify health issues faster and more efficiently.

Misconceptions can flourish and cloud the truth, he added, especially with consumer-related issues. But discussions on antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance between the livestock industry and the public can help set the record straight.

“As an industry, we need to engage the public through retailers and consumer groups,” Nerem said.

“The more we tell our story, the more people will come to understand how much we care about the animals we’re raising and how much we care about the food we’re producing for their families.”