Antibiotics in Food Animal Production: Pew’s Response to Raymond Op-Ed

In his attempt to clarify the issue of antibiotic use in meat and poultry production ("Antibiotics and Animals Raised for Food: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics,"), Dr. Richard Raymond confuses matters.

Most importantly, Dr. Raymond mischaracterizes the value of tetracyclines and the dangers of their overuse. The World Health Organization ranks their importance on par with macrolides (such as the “Z-Pak” antibiotic Azithromycin), fluoroquinolones and cephalosporins, which Dr. Raymond acknowledges are worth protecting. (By the way, in 2009, five times more macrolides were sold for food animal production than for treating sick people.) Yet even if doctors stop prescribing tetracycline, its widespread use on industrial farms will still pose a serious threat to our health. Bacteria often develop resistance to other classes of drugs as a direct result of their exposure to tetracyclines.

Dr. Raymond also asserts that to compare human and animal antibiotic sales more appropriately, one must exclude drugs that are not prescribed for people and, therefore, are not medically important. This changes little, however. After subtracting animal-only antibiotics from this comparison, about 70 percent of medically important antibiotics are still sold for use on industrial farms.

As to Denmark’s antibiotics policies, they have been successful. Overall antibiotic use on industrial farms is down, the prevalence of drug-resistant bacteria in animals and on meat is also down, production is up, and prices are stable.

We agree with Dr. Raymond that resistance is driven by human antibiotic use, but not exclusively. Overuse of these drugs anywhere is a threat to health everywhere, so this fight requires a 360-degree strategy that tackles antibiotic overuse in hospitals and on farms, infection control and the development of new drugs. That is why The Pew Charitable Trusts has multiple efforts underway to protect the public from resistant infections. Pew’s Antibiotics and Innovation Project is working to stimulate the development of new drugs to fight emerging superbugs. The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming is aimed squarely at preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics by curbing their overuse in food animal production. We oppose the use of antibiotics for growth promotion but strongly support their use to treat sick animals and to control the spread of infection in flocks or herds where disease is present. If illnesses are routinely occurring from birth through slaughter, however, then that suggests there are serious, systemic issues better solved by cleaner conditions and modified husbandry practices—not by using antibiotics as a crutch.

It is worth noting that the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and several Nobel laureates, among many others, recognize that medically important antibiotics are being overused and misused on industrial farms at the expense of human health and that it is in the public’s interest to rein in these practices and preserve the effectiveness of these life-saving resources.

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