I suppose the current ranting and raving and choosing of sides goes along with the modern political climate.  The art of calmly discussing the merits and demerits of an issue based on hard facts and science has dried up like a field of corn in the middle of Kansas this summer.  Let’s try to revive that art.

The proper use of antibiotics has been hanging around the cattle industry like an infestation of horn flies for at least two decades.  And like that infestation, if we don’t do something about the issue, it has the potential to be devastating.  It’s been a “Yes it is; no it isn’t” thing since shortly after the first use of antibiotics in animals.  Lately, though, reasoned discussion had given way to chicken-little-style panic in a few corners of the globe.

Jolley: Talking calmly about antibioticsDoes the alleged overuse in animal agriculture lead to drug resistant strains of bacteria with the potential to pose a threat to the human population?  And will it threaten to lead to serious food safety problems?  Some people point to the rise of Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) as proof of the first threat; no one suggests it contributes to the second.  A number of experts, however, are challenging the use of antibiotics as growth promotants, calling it “unnecessary and dangerous.”

Food Safety News editor Dan Flynn editorialized about the use/overuse of antibiotics a few days ago and wrote, “According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) ‘Antimicrobial resistance is recognized as one of the greatest threats to human health worldwide’.”  Click here to read his comments.

The growing resistance is caused by all the uses of antibiotics, not just their use in animal agriculture.  Many scientists think antibiotics are over-prescribed for both the animal and human populations, and physicians and veterinarians should carefully reconsider how often they should reach for the prescription pad.

A blanket reduction would be insane, of course.  After the discovery of penicillin, antibiotics have reduced suffering and death for millions since the first tests were performed on people in the 1930’s.  It has been a generally available life saver for less than 75 years and it was first used to save the lives of wounded troops during WWII.  It wasn’t widely prescribed for people in the general population until the 1950’s.  Because penicillin resistant bacteria were noted almost immediately, researchers began looking for other antibiotics.  Today, we have many options.

Fact: The use of any antibiotic leads to resistant strains.  It’s the natural protective mechanism of bacteria.  We will always be in a race to stay one step ahead of them.  We have many options now, we’ll need many more in the future.

Mr. Flynn was questioning whether the over-emphasis of antibiotics in animal agriculture is the core of the problem, making a very specific point about overuse and food safety.  “I just have this feeling that allowing animal diseases to go untreated would not contribute to food safety,” he wrote. 

Probably not.  The FSIS has some very strict regulations against allowing diseased animals into the food supply, but it would lead to needless suffering in the animal kingdom.

Clarifying some of the questions asked in Flynn’s editorial, Dr. Scott Hurd, Associate Professor and Director of the Food Risk Modeling and Policy Laboratory at Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, wrote a ‘point-counterpoint’ commentary.  If you would like to read cogent statements by one of the most respected Doctors of Veterinary Medicine, click here.  He employs rational scientific thought to confirm, clarify and debunk, just what we need to use when talking with the uninformed who wish to end or severely limit your use of antibiotics to treat illnesses and infections in your herd.

Allowing animal diseases to go untreated is inhumane and anyone suggesting it should be sent to the wood shed immediately and refused treatment when that splinter in the finger becomes infected. 

The proper use of antibiotics should be separated into animal and human silos.  Although there are some antibiotics that cross the spectrum, many that are used with animals are never used on humans.  Restricting the usage of those animal antibiotics should have little or no effect on people.  Answering the question of how often any antibiotic should be used?  That’s the real issue.  Suggesting that it’s a food safety issue?  That’s nonsense.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.