Health leaders around the world are using words like “historical” and “possible turning point” to describe a declaration passed by the UN General Assembly aiming to slow down the spread of bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics. The declaration requires countries to come up with a two-year plan to protect the potency of antibiotics. Countries also need to create ways to monitor the use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, start curbing that use and begin developing new antibiotics that work.
The World Health Organization’s Dr. Kenji Fukada, assistant director general for health, security and environment, said antibiotic resistance has immense economic consequences and implications for food. Asked about antibiotics used in food animal production, he said, “If we lose that ability, we perhaps begin to lose the ability to have adequate food supplies in the world.”
The U.N.’s action is yet another indicator of rising pressure on the food system regarding the use of antibiotics in food animals. Antibiotic resistance is a serious issue and one farms and food companies are taking seriously, but some groups are quick to lay blame or over-emphasize agriculture’s contribution to the problem.
The connection between antibiotics used in animals and the risk of human antibiotic failure is a complex issue not easily distilled for widespread understanding. There’s also the perception among some consumers that antibiotic resistance results from eating meat containing antibiotic residue, but there are strict federal laws in place to prevent unsafe residues in meat.
Drug companies have acknowledged the seriousness of the issue and are making antibiotics available only for treatment and prevention of disease, not growth promotion. Beginning next year, antibiotics important to human medicine will only be available under a Veterinary Feed Directive, essentially a prescription from a veterinarian.
There are unanswered questions on the link between animal antibiotic use and human resistance and the issue is still being studied. Until those questions are conclusively answered, the best source of information is sound science in the form of peer-reviewed and published studies. Dr. Peter Davies, professor of Animal Science at the University of Minnesota, says, “There are almost no documented clinical cases where antibiotic resistance was unequivocally tied to animal antibiotic use. So while the risk is not zero, in my opinion, it is extremely low.”
Animal antibiotics must be used responsibly to minimize agriculture’s contribution to antibiotic resistance. But much of the current discussion about antibiotic use is highly polarized, pitting commercial interests against public health interests. It’s important to remember that preventing disease and treating sick animals through the responsible use of antibiotics is the ethical thing to do.