Animal agriculture is not the cause of antibiotic resistance

There’s no arguing that antimicrobial resistance is a concern and something to be cognizant about. The ability to treat a wide range of diseases and illnesses is an extremely valuable tool that we need to keep effective. My concerns with the “MD legislation guards against superbugs” (May 8) article is the lack of understanding and differentiation between antimicrobial usage in Maryland and globally. Farming and agriculture in the United States is far more advanced than most countries that belong to the United Nations. Furthermore, evidence shows that the true problem with antimicrobial resistance is a cause of human overuse and misuse.

As of 2017, medically important antibiotics are not being used in feed for growth promotion. Livestock caretakers must now work with a veterinarian to obtain a “veterinary feed directive” in order to feed a medically important antibiotic. These directives are only given when necessary. In addition, Maryland took the federal feed directive rule a step further, creating even stricter regulations on antimicrobial usage in animal agriculture.

According to a December report from the Food and Drug Administration, antibiotic usage in animal agriculture is greatly declining. The report outlines that sales and distribution of medically important antibiotics for use in livestock have declined by 33 percent between 2016 and 2017.

Another important point to make is that the most used antimicrobials in livestock are different than those most used to treat humans. The vast majority of antibiotics are either used in people or animals, but very rarely both. For instance, tetracycline is the most used class in animals at 41 percent, while it makes up just 4 percent of usage in humans — the vast majority of that use is in human acne cream. Penicillins are the most used in humans at 44 percent, but only comprise 6 percent of animal agriculture use. Lonophores which make up 30 percent of usage in animals are not used for human treatment.

Studies show that the most urgent antibiotic resistance threats are unrelated to livestock. There is a 1 in a billion chance of antibiotic treatment failure from resistance to common animal antibiotics. This means we are thousands of times more likely to die from a dog bite or lightning striking than from resistance related to animal agriculture.

In 2017, the World Health Organization ranked the 12 most dangerous superbugs. The “priority 1” superbugs, which are considered critical, are all resistant to carbapenem. The carbapenem class of antibiotics are not used in livestock — meaning the resistance has come from use in human medicine. Based on a 2017 stewardship report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 30 percent of all antibiotics prescribed in outpatient clinics and hospitals are unnecessary.

The assertion that antibiotics are not necessary in raising livestock is inaccurate. Animals are already being raised in conditions to promote health and wellness. While some companies and package labels are committing to zero antibiotic treatment, this does not share the full story. In truth, animals that were treated with antibiotics are simply marketed under a different name or label. Animals, at some point in time, will eventually become sick and potentially need treatment.

Lastly, the concern of antibiotics in food and milk is non-existent. Meat producers that utilize antimicrobials for treatment follow strict withdrawal periods. These withdrawal times tell farmers when their animals can safely enter the food system as the antibiotics have safely passed through their system. Meat products are tested for antibiotic residues prior to entering the marketplace. Milk follows similar regulations and testing. Any animal treated with antibiotics will continue to have their milk tested until the results show it is free of the residues. Milk is dumped from those animals until it reaches that point. Milk tanks are also tested prior to being picked up for processing.

Unfairly blaming animal agriculture for antibiotic resistance will not help us solve this issue. Overuse and misuse of medically important antibiotics in human use is the number one reason for the increase in resistant bacteria in our environment. While it may be simpler to blame the agriculture industry, true improvements will not be made until we realize that human antibiotic use is the true concern. Animal agriculture is already making improvements in antibiotic stewardship. Now, it’s time for humans to do the same.

Colby Ferguson

The writer is director of government relations at the Maryland Farm Bureau.

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