Antibiotic Resistance, Food Safety and Human Illness

What did CDC say about antibiotic resistance threats? (Part 2)

CDC’s recent report on Antibiotic Resistance Threats for 2013 is notable particularly for what it did not say about agriculture’s role in bacterial resistance in humans. There was only a small portion of the report devoted to the topic.

In that section, they state “that antibiotic use in food producing animals CAN harm public health” – this I readily accept. Indeed, anything COULD happen. They go on to say “can” or “could” a half dozen times in the 2 pages of 114 devoted to on-farm antibiotic use. Yes, all these events are possible; however, as a risk analyst, I must ask, “How probable are these events?”  You see, risk is a function of both consequence (in this case, resistant illness) and probability. For instance, do you know what common compound can pulmonary toxicity, lung damage, and seizures? Oxygen! Lung damage is the consequence but there is a very low probability of this happening when you’re walking outside. As noted previously the risk assessments published to date show that what “can” happen does not seem to happen very often.

Because of the potential serious consequences of misuse of antibiotics, veterinarians and farmers must be very judicious, avoiding non-essential uses such as growth promotion. But, antibiotics CANNOT be banned from the farm. Just like those human patients who had an infection, antibiotics are needed for animals also. Infectious disease can spread through a herd without any clinical signs, causing unnecessary illness and suffering for my patients, the animals. Also, Denmark already tried to ban antibiotics for disease prevention purposes and saw the amount of treatment antibiotics double and there has been no improvement in public health.

CDC did have much to say about human uses of antibiotics and their appropriateness:

  • “Prescribing antibiotics when they are not needed … in doctors’ offices is common” (Page 34).
  • “… patients demand [antibiotic] treatment for conditions such as a cold when antibiotics are not needed and will not help” (Page 34).
  • “…likewise healthcare providers can be too willing to satisfy a patients expectation for an antibiotic prescription” (Page 34).
  • “Up to 50% of all antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed…” (Page 11).

On this last point, the agriculture pharmaceutical industry reported in 2007 only about 13% of food animal antibiotics are for growth promotion (in other words, not needed).

In summary, CDC highlighted the important health threats from antibiotic resistance and the key bacteria of concern, most of which have no connection to food or agriculture.   They did rightly note, however, that any antibiotic use including those in agriculture CAN contribute to the problem. Therefore, we all need to be careful.

For more information, see CDC Response Part 1.


4 thoughts on “What did CDC say about antibiotic resistance threats? (Part 2)

  1. I am tired of veterinarians and farmers getting blamed for antibiotic resistance. I think we should pay more attention to biosecurity in hospitals and retirement /nursing homes and the administration of antibiotics by human physicians that do not take the time to think about what they are treating or when to stop when it is not working. I have heard people say , my doctor told me to continue for 2 more weeks even though I have not improved and I am getting worse. That seems like a great way to build up an antibiotic resistance. Also ,has anyone looked at antibiotic resisitance in people that are vegetarians? just a thought.

    Posted by Nancy Hannaway DVM | November 20, 2013, 8:44 am
  2. I have read so many articles recently that pretty much take for granted that the use of antibiotics in animal feed is common, or a norm, and that it definitely leads to antibiotic resistance in humans. All of this makes sense to me and other articles point out that the FDA knows this but is under pressure from some groups to not stop it.

    Posted by Gene Cox | April 17, 2014, 5:46 pm
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