Ever wonder why the antibiotics in your food supply have led the powers that be to step in and actually quantify your risks? I do, just as any veterinarian worth his or her salt should.

Because the antibiotics that are being fed to the animals you eat are probably interfering with the ability of these drugs to work as well as they might should you suffer a life-threatening infection. 

The issue of antimicrobial resistance — when the overuse of antibiotics means they no longer do their thing — has been gaining ground among human and animal doctors for decades now. Here’s the issue in a nutshell: If we feed antibiotics to animals to prevent infections, are we thereby abusing the drugs we might need to keep humans safe in the future? 

The answer is simple, if disquieting: We don’t rightly know. Given that it’s tough to prove direct links in so chaotic a system, the evidence may not become available for some time. However, the scientific establishment, including the human medical profession, does agree that antibiotics used to promote animal growth through disease prevention is almost certainly contributing to antimicrobial resistance.

To consider otherwise is to reject the obvious, they say. Slavishly adhering to the demands of rigorous evidence in a case where people are dying and antibiotics are becoming less helpful every day is asinine, they argue. Hence, the call for abandoning the routine use of antimicrobials in animal feed — if, that is, the goal has little to do with actually treating a disease.

Introducing the characters: The AVMA — as in, the American Veterinary Medical Association, my profession’s leading organization, of which I am a card-carrying member; the FDA — as in, the Food and Drug Administration, whose job it is to oversee the safety and efficacy of food and drugs that are consumed by American humans and animals, alike; and Me, in my capacity as columnist for Veterinary Practice News.

The AVMA argues for the unrestricted use of antimicrobials in animal feed, citing animal welfare and food safety concerns.

The FDA is with the American Medical Association (AMA) and other human medical-based groups, who argue against the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed. In other words, if an animal is sick you treat it with drugs and observe proper withdrawal times for the use of its milk, meat, or eggs. But you don't treat food animals indiscriminately with drugs as a way to pack on the poundage more efficiently.

To underscore its point, the FDA recently issued a new policy guideline on the subject. Here's what The New York Times had to say a couple of weeks ago on that score:

Federal food regulators took a tentative step Monday toward banning a common use of penicillin and tetracycline in the water and feed given cattle, chickens and pigs in hopes of slowing the growing scourge of killer bacteria.

But the Food and Drug Administration has tried without success for more than three decades to ban such uses. In the past, Congress has stepped in at the urging of agricultural interests and stopped the agency from acting.

In the battle between public health and agriculture, the guys with the cowboy hats generally win.

Which is exactly why I dedicated my monthly column in Veterinary Practice News to the subject. In so doing, I was looking to pose this question to my profession:

Aimed at promoting growth and preventing disease in an industrial setting, the use of antibiotics in farm animals has been a boon to animal agriculture. Our protein now grows bigger and faster on less feed in less space. It succumbs to fewer diseases. Our dependence on therapeutic drugs that might necessitate long withdrawal times is reduced.

For the public this might seem a slam dunk. Not only is our protein cleaner, but since animals cost less when we raise them on antimicrobials, supermarket-sized chunks of them cost less, too. In fact, feeding an American family a diet rich in animal proteins has never been as inexpensive as it is today.

But at what cost?

Since I was looking to get a response from my profession, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that I touched a nerve at the top: 

Editor:

Though antimicrobial resistance is a topic of interest for everyone, including veterinarians and the American Veterinary Medical Association, articles such as the May 2010 Reality Check column by Dr. Patty Khuly ["Just Say 'No' to Big-Ag Antibiotics?"] do little to educate our colleagues or the public.

In fact, we are concerned that her remarks will serve only to further divide our profession by spreading inaccurate concepts that are not supported by the science. For example, large-animal veterinarians are generically lumped into a category she calls "industry oriented" and Dr. Khuly refers to all farming as "industrial," disregarding the fact that the vast majority of large farms are family owned.

We also must be aware that we will need to double the global production of animal protein in the next 40 years if we are going to meet the growing demand. That can only be accomplished by production agriculture utilizing all the current and newest technology.

Insinuating that antibiotics are nothing more than a mechanism to compensate for poor husbandry, bad management practices and making a quick buck is insulting to our colleagues who use antibiotics therapeutically to ensure animal health and welfare in addition to providing a safe and healthy food supply.

The Food and Drug Administration and Codex agree with the AVMA’s definition of "therapeutic use" to include disease treatment, control and prevention. Any large-animal veterinarian or expert in population medicine can corroborate that preventing a disease in a flock or herd with a lower dose, less important antibiotic is always preferable to waiting for obvious clinical signs and treating the disease with a higher dose, stronger antibiotic, which, in turn, has a greater potential to impact human health.

Dr. Khuly implies that her food animal colleagues are guilty of indiscriminate use of antibiotics routinely included in feed...

Larry R. Corry, DVM

Dr. Corry goes on from there for another 500 words or so. You can read the whole rambling thing here.

Dr. Corry urges me to "remember science," to which I can only say … pay attention to what the vast majority of the scientific community is saying. To ignore the overwhelming preponderance of scientific opinion against the AVMA's narrow view of the science is to see our profession's credibility dwindle. And I, for one, want to go on record that our profession isn't always best represented by the "guys with the cowboy hats."

Dr. Patty Khuly

 Pic of the day: "summertime." by dirkjankraan.com