Bridging the gap: industry, government, media, and consumer advocates meet to talk antibiotics

Last week, members of the agricultural and food retail industries, government representatives, and consumer advocates met in Kansas City to discuss the science and consumer understanding of antibiotics use in livestock production and the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance. Topics discussed included human health and animal health (or “one health”- the idea that health has to be talked about collectively since humans and animals aren’t isolated from each other), antibiotic use regulation and current initiatives, and consumer perceptions of how much antibiotics are used in livestock and why.

As a microbiologist, I was excited to attend and pleased to find that a good part of the conference focused on scientific evidence for antibiotic resistance linked to livestock production, as well as both the strengths of existing studies and remaining data gaps that still need to be addressed. The conference was essentially a learning opportunity for all, which led to a better understanding, on my part, of the arguments on both sides.

Here, I wanted to share some important points that I took away from the discussion:

  • We need to define “judicious use” of antibiotics in disease prevention and treatment to balance the need to treat subclinical infections (infections with no symptoms) in animals against the known danger of overusing antibiotics, which breeds antibiotic resistance.
  • We lack adequate science on whether antibiotics work for disease prevention and growth promotion, which would benefit veterinarians.
  • We need greater transparency in agricultural production practices, especially when it comes to antibiotic use. [According to a survey by Feedstuffs magazine, only 22% of survey respondents (consumers) thought the agricultural industry was transparent].

Going back to the idea of one health, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) presented their recent report on Emerging Antibiotic Resistance, which my colleague and I covered in previous blogs, and highlighted that antibiotic resistance threatening public health stems from antibiotic use in both animal and human medicine.  Speakers, including doctors and scientists, noted that any use of antibiotics promotes antibiotic resistance in the environment and that our goal should be to slow down the trend of rising antibiotic resistance. 

At the end of the conference, many (including myself) were unsure if and how the discussion would translate into new action by the ag industry. Clearly, establishing and implementing antibiotic use practices that protect human health is the goal. However, many attendees agreed that the conference was an opportunity for open discussion and a necessary step towards that end.  If nothing else, the day produced some good conversation. I certainly left Kansas City with a greater understanding of the problem, what information would benefit all involved, and where there are areas of agreement. I hope others did too.