By: Heather Williams

The World Health Organization (WHO) is taking a stand on antibiotic restraint and asking farmers to comply with more conservative approaches.  WHO released new guidance on November 7, 2017 in their publication “WHO Guidelines of Medically Important Antimicrobials in Food-Producing Animals.”  It is no surprise that farmers are not happy with the input.    The medical industry and activists have been talking about the issue for years.  Just over a year ago the United Nations General Assembly bumped the crisis level of antibiotic resistance to the level of HIV, Ebola, and heart disease.  The report cites the agricultural sector as a key player in this fight to against stronger bacteria un-phased by current antibiotics.  Each side of the debate has their points, but a compromise must be made to satisfy the longevity of farms and the effective treatment of modern medicine.

What Exactly Do the Guidelines Suggest?

The purpose for this publication was to bring awareness and suggest changes to how farmers use antibiotics and the types of antibiotics in food animals and even crops that have downline impacts on the control of disease in humans.  Many of the antimicrobial products used in food animals is either identical or very closely related to the antimicrobial tools used by health care professionals for infection and disease management in humans.  This wide-scale usage can and has created antibiotic resistant bacteria in food animals which is transmitted to humans through consumption and other transmission routes.

The main premise is to “mitigate the adverse human health consequences of use of medically important antimicrobials.”  This has been an evolving thought process over the last 12 years.  A WHO expert committee was established in 2005 that was tasked with the responsibility of considering different classifications of antimicrobials.  Three categories were established: important, highly important, and critically important for human medicine.  These criteria are used to list the “WHO List of Critically Important Antimicrobials for Human Medicine (WHO CIA List).”  This list is updated regularly and in the fifth revision already.

The publication urges global farmers to consider six aspects of antibacterial use:

  • “We recommend an overall reduction in use of all classes of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals.”
  • “We recommend complete restriction of use of all classes of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals.”
  • “We recommend complete restriction of use of all classes of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals for prevention of infectious diseases that have not yet been clinically diagnosed.”
  • “We suggest that antimicrobials classified as critically important for human medicine should not be used for control of the dissemination of a clinically diagnosed infectious disease identified within a group of food-producing animals.”
  • “We suggest that antimicrobials classified as highest priority critically important for human medicine should not be used for treatment of food-producing animals with a clinically diagnosed infectious disease.”
  • “Any new class of antimicrobials or new antimicrobial combination developed for use in humans will be considered critically important for human medicine unless otherwise categorized by WHO”.
  • “Medically important antimicrobials that are not currently used in food production should not be used in the future in food production including in food-producing animals or plants.”

 Why is Antibacterial Resistance a Bad Thing?

Antibacterial resistance creates a hurdle to handling human infections.  Resistance can occur in several ways.  Undertreatment, over use, and inappropriate use are a few of the ways that bacteria can become resistant to particular antimicrobials.

When an infection is undertreated or overused, the surviving organisms have an opportunity to adapt to the unhospitable environment.  What does that mean?  Essentially, the bacteria adapt to what is trying to kill it, making it resistant to that particular antimicrobial and those that are similar to it.

Inappropriate use, such as administering antimicrobials to healthy animals as a way to prevent illness or promote growth exposes small amounts of harmful bacteria over and over with the medicine.  This promotes evolution over time of the bacteria to survive exposure to the antimicrobial.

When humans consume foods, they are often exposed to bacteria from the animal products contaminated during the slaughter and processing activities.  When an individual becomes ill as a result, an antibiotic is administered to kill the pathogen and treat the human.  If the bacteria are resistant to the antibiotics administered, it will be ineffective and the person will continue to decline.  Antibiotic sensitivity testing takes time to complete which affects recovery of the patient.

Opposition of the Regulations

Many farmers and politicians oppose these guidelines, citing that there is no sound science to back up these claims and that these procedures have been used for generations to promote fast growing and healthy food production animals.  Advocates for farm use control of antibiotics have indicated that the claim is difficult to prove consistently.  Opposers to the proposed regulation use this for their case.

It is no surprise that farmers and meat groups who would be most affected financially by changes in medicating policy have pushed back.  “A ban on disease prevention uses of antibiotics in food-animal production…would be ill-advised and wrong,” says the National Pork Producers Council in a statement.

Among the all of the pushback, some meat companies have made efforts to move away from their use of antibiotics, but this action only relates to very specific parts of their food production lines.  Chicken companies such as Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms have made changes to their production process to avoid the use of antibiotics.  Animals like broiler chickens no longer receive antibiotics, and can now be labeled with words such as Perdue Farms’ “No Antibiotics Ever.”  Consider that broiler chickens only live to be about six weeks old before they are slaughtered.  With such a short life-span there is less of a need for antibiotic use.  Cows and pigs, on the other hand can live up to two years before they are slaughtered, exposing them to additional illness-causing bacteria.  It’s these production animals that the opposition is worried about.

Meat groups are not the only opposers to the WHO report and antibiotic regulation.  The US Department of Agriculture’s acting chief scientist, Chavonda Jacobs-Young issued a statement saying, “the recommendations erroneously conflate disease prevention with growth promotion in animals,” indicating that the assumption that antibiotics are misused are largely untrue.

Where Do You Stand?

There is information and support for both sides of the argument.  Science will eventually prove one side over the other.  Let’s just hope that the long-term statistical numbers of antibiotic failure is not the final data that proves a point.  When it comes to effectiveness of human medicine, it is best to make decisions in favor of helping keep people healthy.  Farmers will find a way to keep people fed.