Never say never
As a veterinarian, I've been following the antibiotic-free trend in the US poultry industry for many years. Not that long ago, the thought of raising broilers on a large scale without ionophores or other intestinal health antibiotics would have seemed foolhardy. But that has changed in recent years, as we've learned how best to grow and manage antibiotic-free (ABF) flocks. This has come at a cost of lost efficiency for most operations, but these practices have allowed poultry companies to reduce or eliminate antibiotic use in a portion or all of their production with varying degrees of success.
The integrators who implemented ABF production chose to enter this market — and there are valuable lessons we can learn from them. But as the industry expands ABF production — a trend born mostly out of consumer perceptions, not documented public-health threats — we need to make sure we understand the consequences of this paradigm shift:
"No" and "never" are strong words to use when talking about antibiotics in food-animal production. If you don't want to use them, fine. But we, as an industry, should not allow using FDA-approved feed additive medications to somehow be perceived as producing a product that is less wholesome. That, in essence, is what happens when ABF is used as a marketing tool.
All veterinarians take an oath to use their "scientific knowledge and skills…for the protection of animal health and welfare…" I know most veterinarians involved with ABF programs in the US; they are all highly skilled and deeply committed to the health and welfare of the birds under their care. On the other hand, we know ABF production often increases disease pressure and mortality, which puts our science-driven profession at an ethical crossroads.
The new FDA antimicrobial guidelines are here — and we all need to fully understand them. Most of the industry understands that we can still use feed antibiotics for treating, controlling and preventing disease. However, some may not appreciate that there are still non-medically important antibiotics that have retained their performance claims. FDA has deemed these products safe and effective. In my opinion, we'd do well to make judicious use of all of the valuable, time-tested tools available to us.
I don't have all the answers, but this much I know: There are more conversations the poultry industry needs to have with our consumers.
TIMOTHY CUMMINGS, DVM, PhD
Senior Technical Services Veterinarian