An Urban's Rural View

Behind the Curve on Antibiotic Resistance

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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The Farm Foundation discovered something disconcerting last year as it hosted 12 regional workshops on antibiotic resistance: Many livestock producers, feed suppliers and even veterinarians don't really understand the new FDA rules they'll be expected to follow by the end of this year.

For details on the Farm Foundation's report, read DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton's story (…). I attended the foundation's January 20 panel discussion in Washington on antibiotic resistance. Here are a few meaty tidbits from my notes.

-- Restaurants and grocery chains and food processors are racing to promise antibiotic-free meat in anticipation of where they think consumer sentiment is heading. Antibiotic resistance ranks low on consumers' current list of concerns, said retired McDonald's executive Jerome Lyman, but the companies expect that to change and are taking action now. "If you're behind the curve in a competitive environment," he said, "you've already lost." The big issues now are whether the supply chain can keep up with these companies' demands and how the price of meat will be affected.

-- While some companies are promising "No Antibiotics Ever," there's also a relatively new standard, developed by the Pew Charitable Trusts and a group called School Food FOCUS, called Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use. Linda Talkington, who leads Pew's work on antibiotics, said CRAU is a USDA-verified standard that forbids preventive use of antibiotics but allows therapeutic use. According to Pew's website (…), "NAE products can be too expensive and limited in supply for many school districts and other institutions. The CRAU standard has the potential to reduce the overuse of antibiotics on a much larger scale than NAE, since it allows for limited, responsible use of antibiotics to treat sick animals."

-- Antibiotic resistance has become "a global health crisis," said Steve Solomon, a medical doctor, consultant and retired U.S. Public Health Service official. Antibiotic resistance threatens to return humanity to its condition of a century ago, when all infections were potential killers. Any use of antibiotics -- whether for humans or animals -- raises a risk of resistance because, Solomon said, "bacteria are very, very promiscuous -- they willingly share their genes with any other bacteria." Doctors and veterinarians need to come together and share information because "resistance is all connected; it's one big resistance problem." And billions will need to be spent to overcome resistance. As it stands now, Solomon said, "We are not taking the problem seriously."

-- The research pipeline for new antibiotics is nearly empty. So high are the scientific, regulatory and economic hurdles that pharmaceutical companies are putting research dollars to work on more lucrative new products, like cancer drugs. So far, resistance isn't undermining producers' ability to treat animal disease, said M. Terry Coffee, chief science and technology officer at Smithfield Foods Hog Production Company. But "it is a concern." Smithfield is pushing hard for "the responsible and judicious use of antibiotics" because with so few new antibiotic products in the pipeline, "we have to take really good care of the ones we have."

An audiocast of the two-hour panel discussion is available (…).

Urban Lehner



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