A ban on disease prevention uses of antibiotics in food-animal production being advocated by the World Health Organization would be ill-advised and wrong. Denying pigs, cows and chickens necessary antibiotics would be unethical and immoral, leading to animal suffering and possibly death, and could compromise the nation’s food system.
America’s pork farmers share the WHO’s concern about the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is why they have taken steps over the past 30 years to ensure they’re using antibiotics strategically and responsibly to keep animals healthy and to produce safe food. They are complying with an FDA directive that prohibits the use of antibiotics important to human medicine for promoting animal growth and that requires feed and water uses of those same antibiotics to be under a veterinary prescription. They also participate in pork industry-developed programs that include responsible antibiotics use and support federal efforts to track antibiotic resistance in foodborne bacteria from humans, retail meats and food animals.
Prevention uses of antibiotics involve administering antimicrobial drugs to animals that aren’t exhibiting clinical signs of disease but that likely will get disease if a drug isn’t administered. Veterinary involvement in the decision-making process associated with the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs not only is an important aspect of ensuring appropriate use, but for feed and water uses it’s the law. Additionally, using antibiotics to prevent disease, in most cases, supplants the need to use more potent medically important antibiotics to treat disease.
The U.S. pork industry’s goal is to reduce the need for antibiotics, and it has devoted time and resources to that end, including adopting good antibiotic stewardship practices and studying alternatives to antibiotics. Simply reducing on-farm uses of antibiotics, as the WHO suggests, however, likely would have no effect on public health and would jeopardize animal health. Its call for stopping the use of antibiotics that are critically important in human medicine for treating infected animals is antithetical to pork farmers’ and veterinarians’ moral obligation to care for their pigs.