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, said veterinarian and swine health expert Dr. Peter Davies.
"We need to counter the perception that drugs are just thrown around indiscriminately. We do have a regulatory structure in place that restricts how antibiotics are used," said Davies, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, at the recent Iowa Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics annual meeting in Iowa City. More than 200 dietitians from across the state attended the conference.
Davies confirmed that antibiotic resistance is a growing public health concern. Over time, antibiotics have the potential to lose their effectiveness, as 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, 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.
Safer meat today
In reality, the U.S. meat supply is safer now than it was even 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."
Davies also cited polls that show that the majority of consumers support treating animals with antibiotics if they get sick. However, by and large, consumers say they don’t support the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in livestock.
Farmers and veterinarians are listening to consumers and today are more cautious in how they use antibiotics to treat livestock, Davies said.
Tightening up rules
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.
"There’s going to be a great increase in veterinarian oversight and an absolute removal of medically important antibiotics from the food supply in the United States. And the livestock industries are supportive of that," he added.