Call for 'informed debate' on antibiotic use

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Further evidence presented at the ICAAC meeting in California this
week shows that increasing public pressure - and better animal
husbandry - has led to a reduction in the use of antibiotics in
animals in the US. But is this necessarily the best thing to
protect human health?

Yesterday we reported that scientists investigating the effect of antibiotics in animals had discovered that there was an extremely small risk to humans and that the use of such treatments to preserve the safety of the food chain was worth that risk.

Now new data released at the same Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC) in California this week has revealed that companies involved in rearing animals for the food chain are in fact using fewer and fewer antibiotics - a result of increasing pressure from consumers and of new developments in animal husbandry.

A paper presented at the ICAAC event by Professor Herman Goossens of the University of Antwerp, Belgium, revealed that the volume of antibiotics used in animals in the US has steadily declined over the past three years. In 2001, 21.8 million pounds of antibiotics were sold, dropping from 23.7 million pounds in 2000 and 24 million in 1999.

The data were collected from a survey of members of the Animal Health Institute (AHI), consisting of companies that make medicines for pets and farm animals. The survey data include antibiotics used for both farm and companion animals.

"Veterinarians and livestock and poultry producers are constantly evaluating their use of antibiotics as part of the judicious use of these products,"​ said Alexander S. Mathews, president and CEO of the Animal Health Institute which compiled the data from a survey of its members.

"While meat production between 1999 and 2001 rose 1.1 million pounds, use of antibiotics is not rising. Therefore, the amount of antibiotics used per pound of meat produced is going down. This trend can be attributed to three factors: judicious use of antibiotics and continuing improvements in production practices that reduce the need for antibiotics; continued improvements in production and preventative care practices; and the ongoing efforts of various public health and consumer advocacy groups to raise awareness of the issue."

The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved antibiotics for use in animal husbandry for four basic purposes: disease treatment, disease control, disease prevention and health maintenance, as measured by improved growth rates or more efficient feed use.

Health maintenance claims have commonly been called 'growth promotion'. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) considers treatment, control and prevention of disease to be therapeutic uses. Therapeutic use of antibiotics to treat, control and prevent disease continues to comprise more than 80 per cent of total use, despite claims by some that a majority of antibiotics are fed unnecessarily to healthy animals.

Matthews explained that the AHI asks its members each year to provide an assessment of the amount of veterinary antibiotics sold for therapeutic use and health maintenance purposes. The percentage of veterinary antibiotics use reported as 'therapeutic' was 88 per cent in 2000 and 83 per cent in 2001. This shift in percentage did not result in a change in the types of antibiotics used but rather was related to a regulatory change in late 2000 that reclassified certain claims for penicillin feed additives as non-treatment.

While health maintenance, or growth promotion, claims are controversial, there is growing scientific evidence that use of antibiotics in animals, as approved by the FDA, helps maintain the health of animals by suppressing disease, thereby allowing animals to grow more efficiently. The European ban of antibiotics for use in growth promotion has sparked significant increases in the use of more modern antibiotics, and those in classes used in human medicine, for treatment purposes, indicating sharp rises in animal disease.

Matthews cited Denmark, a country which he claimed had a reputation for responsible antibiotic use, and which he said had seen a 96 per cent increase in the use of therapeutic drugs for animals since 1996. "While total antibiotic usage has declined by half, the striking increase in animal disease and the need for therapeutic intervention works against the interests of public health,"​ commented Mathews, confirming the findings of the earlier report on antibiotics in animals which showed an increase in cases of human illness as a result of the phasing out of growth hormones in Denmark.

"Good information is needed to make informed decisions,"​ Mathews continued, "so AHI is continuing in its efforts to provide the most accurate assessment possible of the types of veterinary antibiotics being used and their specific applications. The most recent survey stands as strong evidence that the efforts of veterinarians, livestock and poultry producers, animal health companies, regulatory authorities and advocacy groups are advancing the principles of judicious use and preventative care to ensure that veterinary antibiotics are used responsibly."

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