Big Ag and Antibiotics: Culture War of Facts?

Source: Sheep purple Flickr Photostream.

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: 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.

More like this

About that statement:

...keep them from getting sick when they are confined in squalid and crowded conditions

I'm under the impression the reason for antibiotic use in cattle raising is that cattle did not evolve to digest the high corn diet they are given in feedlots. That diet encourages bacterial growth in their stomachs and so would hamper their growth. The animals could be raised in pristine conditions, but if given the same diet they would suffer the same problems.
Conversely, pigs can eat anything we eat without problem. In that case, improvement of the living conditions could preclude antibiotic use.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 20 Jun 2011 #permalink

Highly dose of antibiotics can lead to many health problems most commonly stomach cramps, acne & bad digestive system. We shouldn't let our selves get addicted on drugs as these are very harmful to our body also antibiotics can make our body's immune system weak against the forth coming bacterial & viral diseases.

Big Ag has always blamed medical use (I remember going to a conference in 2005 where the clinicians blamed ag and vice versa). The real concern is if the political parties (and associated chattering class) divide on this issue. So far, that hasn't happened.

I seem to recall that a certain class of antibiotics had been sparingly used in humans initially (only when other antibiotics fail, use the latest invention) and some related antibiotics had been allowed in the treatment of animals. Guess what happened? Resistance has occurred before this antibiotic was used more often in humans. That more or less builds a strong case against this gross abuse of antibiotics.

Maybe the EHEC fiasco in Europe builds some more momentum for getting agriculture to better their lives. In Europe that is, I don't expect anything from the US.

Do they transfer in the meat? It should be that simple, yes? If it's in the meat, that is to say, from a point at which the animal is still alive, to a point where we are sticking it in our mouths, then yes, it is an issue. Is the antibiotic, at any point in this sequence of events, in an amount that would either have a negative effect on the consumer or a positive effect on the bacteria?
If it is in the meat, does its presence provoke allergic reactions in consumers who are otherwise allergic to antibiotics?

Cattle can eat the high levels of corn in the feedlot as long as their ration also includes roughage such as hay or silage. Failure to provide roughage causes a myriad of problems which would include poor rate of gain. Antibiotics are fed as growth promotants, they improve rate of gain and feed efficiency.
I find it ironic that bloggers here who cling to scientific methods sound like the folks at age of autism who want to jump off the cliff with ideas to support their theories. University research has not been able to demonstrate a relationship between antibiotic use in livestock and problems with antibiotic resistance in humans.
More work needs to be done, and tagging or chipping animals to maintain a record of their origon would help, but thus far science cannot demonstrate a link. Suspect if you want but there is no evidence.
Yes, my training is in animal science. I still work in agriculture but not in the livestock industry. I don't have a calf, pig or chicken in this fight. I just disdain the ignorance.