Big Ag and antibiotics are becoming a lightning rod for a culture war of facts. Does agricultural use of antibiotics contribute to their diminishing effectiveness in people?
Liz Wagstrom, Chief Veterinarian of the National Pork Producers Council says no. In in a Letter to the Editor in The New York Times, she writes:
In fact, numerous peer-reviewed risk assessments show virtually no risk to humans from antibiotic use in animals.
The risk to public health from overuse or misuse of antibiotics comes overwhelmingly from human medicine, not livestock production.
Of course, such an authoritative statement should be viewed with caution given the inherent conflict of interest in her position to support the pork industry. Dr. Wagstrom was responding to an OpEd written by Nicolas Kristoff, “When Food Kills” in which he wrote:
The Food and Drug Administration reported recently that 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to livestock, not humans. And 90 percent of the livestock antibiotics are administered in their food or water, typically to healthy animals to keep them from getting sick when they are confined in squalid and crowded conditions.
We would never think of trying to keep our children healthy by adding antibiotics to school water fountains, because we know this would breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It’s unconscionable that Big Ag does something similar for livestock.
Consider these facts, described in a commentary I published in Science with my colleague Dr. Peter Oelschaeger:
…it is highly unlikely that an individual living in a developed country could escape any exposure to antibiotics. In the United States, an estimated 8,600 to 13,000 tons of antibiotics (about half of the total consumption) are used for non-therapeutic purposes, including agriculture and animal husbandry (2). A host of antibiotics have been detected in wastewater at levels of 1.7 to 1.9 micrograms/L (3).
No, this does not prove a causal link between agricultural use of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance in people. However, the scientific facts support this idea – imagine the effect on our population of literally thousands of tons of antibiotics used in agriculture and animal husbandry, not intended in any way to support public health. Any microbiologist knows that if you grow bacteria in low levels of antibiotics, you can easily select for surviving cultures that have become resistant.
Is this a culture war of facts? This conflict is of personal interest, because I have been deeply involved in research on antibiotic resistance.