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Does Adding Routine Antibiotics to Animal Feed Pose a Serious Risk to Human Health?

11 September 2013

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Animal Health Industry Consultancy Services
David Burch
David Burch
Octagon Services Ltd.

As fears rise over resistance, some countries have banned the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed. Two professionals with opposing views state their case in a recently published article.

In an article in the British Medical Journal recently, physician Dr David Wallinga writes that a ban is possible without damaging food productivity, while veterinarian David G.S. Burch argues that the drugs used in animal feeds are not those causing problems with resistance in humans.

"Routine Antibiotics Are Not Necessary"

Dr Wallinga opened his argument, writing: "You cannot dispute the warning of England’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, that antibiotic resistance is one of modern health’s greatest threats. Also beyond dispute is her analysis of its causes — the lack of new drugs combined with massive
overuse of existing antibiotics.

"What physicians and policy-makers generally overlook, however, is the critical role played by the ongoing overuse of antibiotics in livestock and poultry production.

"Enforceable measures to reduce this overuse must be core to any effort to avert the coming catastrophe. Because meat production is global in nature, these measures must be implemented nationally and supranationally."

He goes on to examine the cost of antibiotic resistance and the ecological challenges, before concluding that routine antibiotics are unnecessary in animal production.

"Contrary to claims by some in the livestock and drug industries," he writes, "routine antibiotics are not necessary for animal health. Pasture based production was the norm before antibiotics. Industrial-style meat production, in which animals are confined in close quarters and fattened on soy and maize based feeds, also is possible without routine antibiotics, as Denmark has shown."

He cites an article last year in Nature, in which it was stated that Denmark has reduced antimicrobial use in livestock production by 60 per cent while increasing pork production by half since 1994. Antibiotic use is now 50mg per kg of meat produced, one-sixth of the amount in the US.

"Almost every European and North American public health authority agrees: routine antibiotic use in animal food production likely worsens the epidemic of resistance. Hundreds of studies, recently summarised, comprise the ever growing body of evidence.

"Less certain is the political will to act on that information," concluded Dr Wallinga.

"Adding Antimicrobial Products to Feed is Unlikely to Affect Development of Critical Drug Resistance in Humans"

"When antibiotics are used, whether in humans or animals, there is a risk of selection for resistance," explained veterinarian, David Burch. "This applies not only to the target bacteria but also to commensal bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Enterococcus species that exist in the gut and may also be exposed to the antibiotic.

"Resistant infections have become increasingly problematic in hospitals and care homes, hence the concern about the extent of antibiotic use.

"However, adding antimicrobial products to the feed of animals in the European Union is unlikely to affect development of critical drug resistance in humans and pose a serious risk to human health," he wrote.

He went on to explain how antimicrobial resistance develops and that difference antibiotics are used in human and veterinary medicine. The risk of transmission of resistance to humans is low, he added.

Summing up, Dr Burch wrote: "Given that the critical antimicrobials in human medicine are not used in animal feed, that regulatory authorities conduct thorough assessments of the risk of resistance from use of antimicrobial substances, and that the environmental effect and the effects of residues in edible tissues are also assessed, it is highly unlikely that adding antibiotics to feed poses a serious risk to humans, especially compared with the extensive use of antibiotics directly in humans."


Wallinga D. and D.G.S. Burch. 2013. Does adding routine antibiotics to animal feed pose a serious risk to human health? British Medical Journal. 347:f4214. doi: 10.1136/bmj.f4214

Further Reading

You can view the full article by clicking here.

September 2013

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