Now that we’re sniffling our way through cold and flu season, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if you or a family member is diagnosed with a sinus infection, strep throat or another miserable wintertime illness.
Yet every living creature — whether it’s a plant, an insect, a cow or your family’s dog — can get sick, noted Dr. Peter Davies, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
That’s why sometimes veterinarians must give antibiotics to companion animals and to livestock to treat illness, alleviate their symptoms and keep them healthy, Davies told an audience of about 200 dietitians at the recent Iowa Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics annual meeting in Iowa City.
But despite what you may see in the news or on Facebook, it isn’t the “Wild West” when it comes to antibiotic use in meat production, Davies said.
“We do have a regulatory structure in place that restricts how antibiotics are used,” he said.
Davies confirmed that antibiotic resistance is a growing public health concern. Over time, antibiotics have the potential to lose their effectiveness if disease-causing bacteria evolve to resist the drugs.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports about 23,000 people die each year from infectious bacteria resistant to antibiotics. While any death is unacceptable, to put that number in perspective, it represents fewer than 1 percent of U.S. deaths per year, Davies said. “The actual concern is the growth potential, not necessarily the current levels,” he said.
Theoretically, some scientists caution that the use of antibiotics in livestock could lead to antibiotic resistance in humans, although research has never found a direct link related to meat consumption, he said.
In reality, the U.S. meat supply is safer now than it was even just 20 years ago, due to stricter food-inspection regulations and better education among farmers, Davies said.
In the United States, farmers must follow a strict withdrawal period before they can send an animal treated with antibiotics to market. This withdrawal period, which is required by federal law, ensures that any remaining antibiotic residues aren’t present in the meat.
If a meat product tests positive for antibiotic residues, it can’t go into the food supply.
Davies noted that in 1978, more than 13 percent of hogs at meat-processing plants tested positive for antibiotic residues. In 2012, that number had dropped to 0.14 percent.
“You’ve got to realize that with modern technology now, we are able to detect extremely low levels of (antibiotic) residues. The residue detection program says that there is no public health risk in 99.9 percent of the product,” Davies said.
In addition, government testing has found that levels of potential illness-causing bacteria, such as salmonella and enterococcus, on meat products have trended down in the last 20 years.
“There is no zero risk in the world. We will always probably have some unfortunate food-borne event, because contamination can happen anywhere along the (food-production) chain, up until your own refrigerator,” Davies said. “But the very important message is that the levels of safety have gotten much, much better.”
Farmers and veterinarians are listening to consumers and today are more cautious in how they use antibiotics to treat livestock, Davies said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with the support of the livestock industry, is tightening up its restrictions on antibiotic use in meat production.
Starting in January 2017, the FDA is prohibiting the use of medically important antibiotics (or those that are also important for human health) for growth promotion in livestock.
Also by 2017, farmers can only use medically important antibiotics in feed and water with a veterinarian’s approval and oversight to treat livestock.
“I think it’s really important for consumers and their advisors to know what controls and supervision are going on and the fact that (antibiotic use) is getting more stringent, not less stringent,” Davies said.
However, Davies again stressed that no food can be guaranteed 100 percent safe. He urged consumers to follow safe cooking and food-handling practices at home to further lower their risk of food-borne illness, a good reminder for the holiday season.
“We have a lot of consumer behaviors that give the ‘bugs’ a chance,” Davies told the dietitians. “So it’s really important, particularly for a group that advises on dietary practices, to reinforce the message that everything we put in our mouths carries some hazard that we need to be cautious about, but recognizing that our food supply statistically is very, very safe.”