Antibiotic resistance is without a doubt one of the most talked about topics in the food industry today. While some popular fast food restaurants have announced they will go “antibiotic-free” in the coming years, others in the industry are questioning how much benefit movements like this will actually have on the quality of human and animal health.
Recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron commissioned a report on antibacterial use in agriculture, which was released earlier this week and proposes three global interventions that would substantially reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture and the quantities being dispersed into the environment.
Titled Antimicrobials in Agriculture and the Environment: Reducing Unnecessary Use and Waste, the review analyzed 139 academic studies and 280 published, peer-reviewed research articles that address the issue of antibiotic use in agriculture. According to the report, only seven of these studies argued that there was no link between antibiotic consumption in animals and resistance in humans, while 100 (72%) concluded that there was evidence to support limiting the use of antibiotics in agriculture.
“I find it staggering that in many countries most of the consumption of antibiotics is in animals, rather than humans,” economist Jim O’Neill, who chaired the report, said in a recent article. “This creates a big resistance risk for everyone, which was highlighted by the recent Chinese finding of resistance to colistin — an important last-resort antibiotic which has been used extensively in animals.
The first step noted in the report to reduce animal antibiotic use is to establish a global target. While still ambitious at this point, the article states that this target could potentially be based on Denmark’s average of less than 50 milligrams of antibiotics used a year per kilogram of livestock in the country, but the exact level would have to be discussed and tested by experts and low- and middle-income countries may need more time to achieve such a target.
Steven Roach, senior analyst for the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition, notes that matching Denmark would require the U.S. to reduce its agricultural antibiotic use by two-thirds.
But not everyone supports target-setting.
Sean Wensley, president of the British Veterinary Association, said in the article that antibiotic use in agriculture “is just one piece of the jigsaw when tackling AMR,” adding that his organization “is opposed to the introduction of arbitrary, non-evidence based target setting; such targets, to reduce antibiotic use, risk restricting vets’ ability to treat disease outbreaks in livestock, which could have serious public health and animal welfare implications.”
In the second piece of the target recommendation, the review explains that the types of antibiotics used are just as important as the quantity.
“Currently many antibiotics that are important for humans are used in animals. Countries need to come together and agree to restrict, or even ban, the use of antibiotics in animals that are important for humans,” the report states.
The review’s other two recommendations are for the rapid development of minimum standards to reduce antimicrobial manufacturing waste released into the environment and improved surveillance to monitor problems and progress.
“It’s time for policy makers to act on this,” O’Neill said in the article. “We need to radically reduce global use of antibiotics and to do this we need world leaders to agree to an ambitious target to lower levels, along with restricting the use of antibiotics important to humans.”
However, because the topic is so controversial, the review will spend months with governmental bodies , non-governmental organizations and industry, to discuss and further develop these proposals before presenting a more detailed final package that plans to cover the whole antimicrobial resistance landscape.
“There is good evidence that antimicrobial resistance can move from livestock to humans, and from humans to livestock as well. But whether banning or reducing antimicrobial use in livestock would, by itself, have much public health benefit remains very doubtful,” professor of infectious disease epidemiology Mark Woolhouse said in an article. “Drug resistant infections in hospitals develop mainly because we use antimicrobials on ourselves. What is needed is an integrated approach so that at the same time as reducing usage in farm animals, we make strenuous efforts to reduce usage in humans, saving these valuable drugs for those that most need them.”
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