Industry Coalition Questions WHO Recommendation On Antibiotics

US - The World Health Organization's (WHO) Aug. 13 recommendation that the use of antibiotics in animals for growth promotion be discontinued prompted an immediate response from U.S. producers groups and animal health companies, reports Feedstuffs.
calendar icon 20 August 2003
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Industry Coalition Questions WHO Recommendation On Antibiotics - US - The World Health Organization's (WHO) Aug. 13 recommendation that the use of antibiotics in animals for growth promotion be discontinued prompted an immediate response from U.S. producers groups and animal health companies, reports Feedstuffs.

The Coalition for Animal Health, representing the Animal Health Institute, National Cattleman's Beef Assn., National Chicken Council, National Pork Board and National Turkey Federation, was quick to question the WHO recommendation and to point out that growth-promoting antibiotics are important animal health products that have been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and regulatory agencies in many other countries. "These are products that have a decades-long track record of safety and efficacy," the coalition said.

WHO issued its recommendation on growth-promoting antibiotics after reviewing the recent experience in Denmark, a country that mandated a ban on sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock production. Virtually no antibiotic growth promoters have been used in Denmark since the end of 1999.

"The WHO recommendation mirrors the political -- not scientific -- action taken by the European Union," said the coalition, pointing to a recently published article in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy that documented that the removal of antibiotics for growth promotion in Europe has led to a significant increase in animal disease and the use of antibiotics of importance to human medicine to treat that disease (Feedstuffs, Aug. 11).

Moreover, the coalition said, the article cites published literature indicating that despite the ban there has been no reduction in the prevalence of resistant enterococcal infections in humans. Even the WHO report recognizes that clinical problems in humans related to resistance to antimicrobial growth promoters were rare in Denmark before and after termination, said the coalition. "Denmark has jeopardized the health and well-being of its livestock but has not demonstrated an improvement in human health."

The coalition said evidence demonstrates that the care U.S. producers exercise in administering antibiotics to animals is working to protect public health. Pointing to data from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Department of Agriculture, the coalition said the incidence of resistant food-borne bacteria in humans is dropping, as is the incidence of bacterial pathogens on raw meat and poultry. Likewise, the coalition said CDC is showing the rate of food-borne illness in the U.S. is dropping. "These accomplishments are the result of the livestock industry's nearly universal acceptance of sound production practices," said the coalition.

The coalition pointed out that WHO based its recommendation to other countries largely on two presumptions gleaned from the Danish experiment. First, it presumes that benefits of the ban will accrue from increased "consumer confidence" in meat products and, secondly, that "likely" human health benefits will result.

In November 2002, WHO convened an independent, multidisciplinary international expert panel to review and report on the potential consequences to human health, animal health and welfare, environmental impact, animal production and national economy resulting from Denmark's ban on the use of antimicrobial growth promoters in food animal production, particularly swine and broiler chickens.

The WHO panel concluded from that review that "there have been no serious negative effects."

"Denmark's program to discontinue use of antimicrobial growth promoters has been very beneficial in reducing the total quality of antimicrobials administered to food animals. This reduction corresponds to a substantial decrease in the overall proportion of individual animals given antimicrobials and in the duration of exposure among animals given antimicrobials," said WHO.

In regard to the application of its findings to other countries, WHO said that consequences of antimicrobial growth promoter termination in other countries should be broadly similar to Denmark but may vary in some respects depending on the health status of animals and prevailing animal husbandry conditions.

In Denmark, WHO found the discontinuation of antimicrobial growth promoters resulted in a significant increase in antimicrobial treatments for diarrhea during the post-weaning period and a less-pronounced and transient increase in antimicrobial treatment for diarrhea in finishers. In broilers, necrotic enteritis was found to be a minor broiler health problem following the termination of antimicrobial growth promoters. WHO said broilers were less affected by the ban, largely because producers continued to use ionophores for the prophylaxis of necrotic enteritis and coccidiosis.

Based on available data, WHO said, the effects of the Denmark ban on poultry production was a 2.3% decrease in feed efficiency. The organization said no changes in weight gain or mortality in broilers appeared to be related to the discontinued use of antimicrobial growth promoters.

WHO said the economic effects associated with the discontinuation of antimicrobial growth promoters "would depend upon several factors, including the effects on performance levels and the cost of any technologies adopted to compensate for the termination of antimicrobial growth promoters. These costs may be offset by the benefits of increased consumer confidence and public health, said WHO.

The WHO review also determined the net costs associated with productivity losses incurred from the removal of antimicrobial growth promoters from pig and poultry production resulted in a 1% increase in pig production costs and no net cost change for poultry. WHO said, however, that some of these additional costs -- increased therapeutic antimicrobials and reduced growth rate -- were measured and were not large but that others, especially costs associated with modifications of the production systems, were difficult to measure and were not taken into account for this report even though costs may have been substantial for some producers. The savings associated with not purchasing antimicrobial growth promoters would have, at least partially, offset these costs, said WHO.

WHO released its report on the heels of legislation introduced in Congress to phase out the use of medically important antibiotics as feed additives for farm animals. The bill allows for the continued use of antibiotics to treat sick animals and for the non-routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock and poultry that are not sick.

Overall, WHO said, the use of antimicrobials in food animals in Denmark has been reduced substantially following the discontinuation of antimicrobial growth promoters. On a national basis, WHO said the quantity of antimicrobials used in food animals in Denmark has declined 54% from 1994 (205,686 kg) to 2001 (94,200 kg).

The WHO report "makes it clear that routinely feeding antibiotics to farm animals is unnecessary and a dumb thing to do. The experts have taken a hard look. Now it's clear that it is entirely feasible for the U.S. to take the same path as Denmark and end routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock and poultry that are not sick," said David Wallinga, a physician with the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy.

Karen Florini, senior attorney with Environmental Defense, said it is "extremely good news that an independent panel of experts assembled by WHO has rigorously reviewed the evidence and concluded that Denmark -- the world's largest pork exporter -- has encountered no signficant difficulties in ending the routine feeding of medically important antibiotics to farm animals. The U.S. should do likewise to protect our citizens' health."

Source: National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) - 18th August 2003

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