Recently, I presented my views about antibiotic stewardship and the future of antibiotic use in the cattle industry to a group of cattle feeders and was approached to put those thoughts on paper.
Here are some of them.
First, I must give you a couple of my personality quirks. I prefer to do public speaking to writing, so forgive me if this is not a masterpiece. Moreover, I am an eternal optimist and that optimism continues to grow the older I get. I believe in “continuous improvement,” and this theme will resonate throughout this article.
Also, please don’t expect many facts and figures in the article. The older and more experienced I get, the more I realize to connect with anyone you first have to connect to their thoughts and biases. Rarely do facts and figures accomplish that connection, at least not by themselves.
So, let’s explore the title of this article. A precious resource conjures up many thoughts in many different ways. In the field of medicine — all medicine — few discoveries have assisted medical professionals more in our duty and honor as caretakers of the animal and people kingdoms. No one paying attention to health anywhere on our planet will argue the importance of the amazing tool of antibiotics, for all creatures.
As an agriculture medical professional and enthusiast at all geographical and food-support levels, I have never doubted, even for a second, the welfare need for antibiotics in caring for our animals. I have never questioned the stewardship in using antibiotics for managing animal groups, be it herds, flocks or fish. But, here we are today, being asked to actively participate in protecting the future utility of antibiotics for humans, primarily, but animals, as well, as a very close second priority.
Make no mistake about it, when antibiotics are used it puts pressure on the bacteria to find ways to survive in the presence of the antibiotics. Said another way, the more antibiotics are used, the more likely the bacteria will find ways to survive.
To complicate managing this medical intervention even more, the most powerful antibiotics need to be developed and then not used until they are the last resort. This breaks all the rules of business: Invest heavily, develop well and then put on the shelf and not use aggressively.
This brings me to my topic of “continuous improvement.” You may wonder where that fits in this discussion, but it really isn’t very complicated.
Global societal pressure, government officials, retail differentiation and medical strategists are all aligned on the shared goal of wanting less use of antibiotics in food production. In my 35-plus years of veterinary medicine, I have never experienced a subject that is so relevant across so many diverse sectors.
The basis for all this is a real concern in human medicine about escalating antibiotic resistance. As I observe life and medicine all around me, human medicine and society are doing many positive things to reduce use, and they are ramping up to do even more. Further, the informed scientists agree that the resistance problem in human medicine is primarily a human issue. But the tough news for us in agriculture is that society influencers and policy makers can’t legislate big improvements in human medicine because it’s too big, yet they believe they must do something. The result is they push agriculture to carry a very sizable share of the responsibility.
Those of us who have spent our entire lives in this protein business recognize we can adapt to almost anything. If we are still in production agriculture, we are really good at adaptation. All of us would also share in the necessary goal of having effective antibiotics for our children, our grandchildren and our animals. So in the interest of continuous improvement, the next few years will see all of us whine some about new ways to reduce antibiotic use. Yet, we will find ways to do this without compromising productivity and animal welfare.
In the end, we will adapt to the new responsibility we share in protecting this precious resource for all animals and people.
Sibbel is director of U.S. Cattle Technical Services for Merck Animal Health.