Antibiotics and Animal Feed

Imagine consuming meat products that contain some kind of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in it.  It is not a very pleasing thought, is it?  There has been a recent issue pertaining to the misuse of antibiotics being mixed into animal feed.  The main concern with this has to do with the placing of a larger-than-normal amount of the antibiotics in the animal feed, which leads to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  This, in turn, puts human health at risk, by way of humans consuming meats that contain these bacteria.  Not surprisingly, the Food and Drug Administration had come under fire for continuing to allow the animal pharmaceutical companies to continue producing it, despite the risk that it poses to human health.  However, recently, the FDA made a move to reduce the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by reaching out to those companies that produce such animal feed, asking them to voluntarily halt production, an action which has been met with positive feedback.  Despite this movement being relatively new, this is definitely the right step toward eliminating the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria toward human health.  If these companies that were approached stick to what the FDA had asked from them, there should be little reason to doubt its success.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are exactly what they are named: simply put, they are bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotic treatment.  Interestingly enough, the reason that these bacteria became resistant, in the context of this issue, is due to a misuse of antibiotics being used in animal feeds.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year, an average of two million people becomes infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotic treatments, with 23,000 deaths each year.  Examples of well-known brand of antibiotics include penicillin and tetracycline.

This issue can be traced back to a few months ago, when it was reported that the FDA “allowed the drugs—used as additives in animal feed and water—to remain on the market”, despite the dangerous risk that it poses to human health.  The FDA had reviewed various animal feeds for health risks, in which they found that 18 of the 30 feeds that they had analyzed contained a high risk of exposure to humans.  Despite their findings, they still allowed the sale of these animal feeds.  They have also garnered some criticism by being vague about various other issues, ranging from unclear reports, to a seemingly apparent ignorance of their own safety standards.  This all changed when the FDA announced, in December of 2013, that they have issued a voluntary action that involved asking animal feed pharmaceutical companies to stop their production.

Common with these kinds of debates, there were both positive and negative standpoints seen in the use of antibiotics in animal feeds, believe it or not.  The use of antibiotics in animal feeds goes back decades ago, when it was not only used to sustain the health of the animals, but was also as a growth and performance agent.  Used in increments of two to 50 grams, you would mainly see the brands of antibiotics mixed into the animal feed to keep them healthy, with an increased dosage of as much as ten times the normal amount whenever certain diseases became known and farmers needed to protect the health of their animals.  Once the threat is gone, the regular dosage is used again.  When talking about performance increases, it is not so much performance in terms of fitness, but rather in production.  For example, the use of antibiotics in chicken feeds apparently “substantially improves egg production, feed efficiency, and hatchability, but no significant signs of mortality.”  What this tells us is that the use of these antibiotics, as a “performance enhancer”, makes the chickens more efficient and, if you want to use this word, “useful” in a way.  When the introduction of this practice started up decades ago, odds are that the issue of this being a risk to human health was never really brought up as a significant concern, or rather, it was not something that ran through the average person’s mind at the time, but was something that only experts in these types of pharmaceutical drugs thought.  Obviously, something like this needed to change.  As something that is viewed as potentially detrimental to human health, it was a wise idea to bring this issue to people’s attention.

Normally, when you see a health risk such as this one come up, one of the questions that would cross anybody’s mind is how people contract these antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the first place?  There are several ways that humans can come into contact with these bacteria, whether directly or indirectly.  Firstly, it starts at the slaughterhouse, where it is possible for workers to be exposed to animal blood.  If the workers that carry the animal blood on them do not sanitize themselves properly, the bacteria can still live on them.  If those workers eat something with their hands, then it is at that point where the person can become infected (a direct effect).  Indirectly, you could be exposed if someone carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria simply does not cover their mouth when coughing or sneezes without covering their nose.  The growing nature of bacteria, combined with the methods of transferring from one person to another, makes this a large risk to human health overall and it is what health experts and biologists are concerned about.  The growing amount of infections makes it hard for medical professionals to treat those that contract the bacteria.

Currently, the status of the situation is that, as of March 26, 2014, the FDA had announced that 25 of the 26 animal pharmaceutical companies have complied with the FDA’s request to phase out antibiotics in their animal feed, with those companies producing 99.6% of the overall animal feed.  Despite being a voluntary action requested by the FDA, all but that one company agreed to stop using antibiotics in their animal feed.  To be more accurate, antibiotics will not be phased out; rather it will be made, such that it would need to be prescribed by a licensed veterinarian.  Overall, by the looks of this plan, it is definitely a great first step.  By allowing these companies to voluntarily do this, it starts the process early, while avoiding the long amounts of time in creating regulations that most likely need to go back-and-forth many times.  It also does not force them to change their operations to comply with regulations and laws.  By making something like this voluntary, you would let them ease into the change and adapt to what they need to do.  This also allows for avoiding conflict between two parties, because there is a mutual understanding between them.

This is still a relatively early movement by the FDA; therefore, there are recognized issues in this.  First, there is a moral hazard that needs to be addressed in terms of pharmaceutical regulations.  In an editorial post by the Los Angeles Times, there is a mention of a problem with “rogue veterinarians” that could prescribe antibiotics, and therefore, make a profit.  There is also an issue with the “voluntary” part of this movement, in that what the FDA says “are merely suggestions.”  In other words, these are, technically, not regulations that these 26 companies have to follow; rather they can do it on their own free will.  There lies an ethical bit that might tip the scales in this movement’s success.  There is no doubt that these are quality issues that need to be addressed.  However, these companies seem to truly know the risk that antibiotics could have on human health.  After all, they had voluntarily agreed to comply.  So if they continue to side with the FDA, there should be minimal issues with this.  As for the “rogue veterinarians”, new policies might need to be put in place, both for the veterinarians and the complying companies.

It is still too early to see if this voluntary stoppage of antibiotics in animal feed will make a major impact on overall agriculture.  The FDA’s move to reach out to these companies was definitely a good step in the right direction, as it showed the health risk that developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria can have on human health.  Should they expand on their recent move, it could prove to go in the right direction.  The issue of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meats and food has existed for a fairly long time period, so a halt in animal feed production by those 25 companies (99.6% of the total production) should make some kind of impact in the future.  However, again, this issue also has its negative points.  Despite that, it is still a new move by the FDA, in which their prescription plan has not even been implemented yet.  Yes, there needs to be a little bit of negotiations to form the regulations that concerned people have been seeking, but because this has potential, this FDA movement should be something to look forward to.

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