“Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.”


This is the oath that new veterinarians take before being admitted to the profession. The italicized words were added in 2011 to emphasize the commitment that veterinarians should have with regards to animal welfare.


When I hear about members of my profession promoting the use of antibiotics as a method for producing meat or other animal products more cheaply, I can’t help but think about our oath. The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future has just put out a report that puts forth some scary statistics with regards to how prevalent the practice is and how potentially dangerous it might be.


Based on FDA [Food and Drug Administration] data, 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for use in meat and poultry production in 20115, representing 80 percent of the total volume of antibiotics sold in the United States for any purpose 6.


Some 685 drugs are approved by the FDA for use in animal feed 7. Effects from these drugs, however, reach far beyond their direct administration to food animals. The use of animal byproducts can cause the drugs to be recycled back into food production, further contributing to antimicrobial pressure on bacteria present in the food animal production setting. A recent study, for example, has shown that feather meal, a poultry byproduct used as a feed additive in poultry, swine, ruminant, and fish feed, is a source of numerous antimicrobial (and other pharmaceutical) residues 8. All samples tested had between two and ten measurable antibiotic residues. In addition, fluoroquinolones, a class of antibiotics banned from use in poultry in 2005, were found in the majority of samples tested.


Antibiotic-resistant bacteria easily migrate from animal production sites into the air, water, and soils surrounding these sites 9-12. They can then be transported to members of rural communities and beyond through a variety of mechanisms, including land application of animal waste as fertilizer 13. Workers at IFAP [Industrial Food Animal Production] operations, food animal transport trucks, and nondomesticated animals (rats, birds of prey, flies) have been shown to carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria 14-19; these vectors are capable of transporting bacteria off the farm site.


Humans may be exposed to antimicrobial-resistant bacteria originating from IFAP through a wide array of environmental and dietary pathways, including direct contact with animals, contact with soil, air, or water contaminated with animal waste, and consumption or handling of contaminated food 3.


Antibiotics are one of the greatest human inventions of all time. How can we waste them and risk the health of animals and people, all to produce cheap meat that, frankly, we’d all be better off eating less of anyway?



Dr. Jennifer Coates


Image: Thinkstock