Putting antibiotic use in perspective

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As the debate over antibiotic use in animal agriculture heats up, a common claim from opponents is that 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used in animals. This, they say, supports the accusation that agricultural use is a primary cause of emergence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. However, in an opinion piece published in Food Safety News, Richard Raymond, a medical doctor and former undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, brings some perspective to the statistics thrown around in the antibiotics discussion.

In his column titled “Antibiotics and Animals Raised for Food: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics,” Dr. Raymond says the 80 percent number is meant to be a distraction from the real truth. The numbers reported by the FDA reflect total volume of antibiotics sold, but do not indicate how the products were used.

More importantly, the 80 percent figure lumps all types of antibiotics together. Citing a report from the FDA, Raymond details the reasons the figure is misleading. First, 28 percent of all antibiotics sold for use in animals in 2010 were ionophores, a class of drugs never approved for use in human medicine. Once accounting for other drugs not approved for human use, the total percentage of antibiotics sold for use in animals but not used in human medicine reaches 45 percent.

Tetracycline, he says, was the class of antibiotics most widely used in animals in 2010. In the past, tetracycline was widely used in human medicine, but today accounts for just 1 percent of the volume of antibiotics sold for human use.

So, Raymond writes, 87 percent of antibiotics used in animals are either never, or very rarely, used in human medicine.

In contrast, the cephalosporin and the fluoroquinolone classes of antibiotics accounted for 24 percent of antibiotics sold for use in humans in 2009, but represented just 0.3 percent of those sold for use in animals.

Raymond also notes that antibiotic resistance is not a new phenomenon. Cases of resistant pathogens turned up just seven years after the introduction of penicillin in 1943, and just one year after the introduction of methicillin in 1959. Emergence of bacteria resistant to those drugs, he says, occurred because of their use in humans, not animal agriculture.

Read the full column from Food Safety News.

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Robert D    
Ark  |  January, 10, 2013 at 07:40 AM

The other number never cited is the difference in the populations receiving the drugs. The human population is just under 300 million, isn't it? What's the total number of all animals in the country that these drugs are divided amongst? Might change a perspective or two, huh? If they want to fight a war of statistics, it's going to be messy!

tony newbill    
powell butte ore  |  January, 10, 2013 at 09:03 AM

Why Women In China Do Not Get Breast Cancer? And there is a connection to Men’s Prostate Cancer too ! The difference between the rate of contracting cancer is amazing between the USA and China !!!!! http://jennyho8.wordpress.com/2008/03/26/why-women-in-china-do-not-get-breast-cancer/

ks  |  January, 10, 2013 at 09:04 AM

You mean pounds of antibiotic used per pound of human live weight, versus the same per pound of cattle live weight? That would be an interesting number.

ND  |  January, 10, 2013 at 11:50 AM

Tony, Thank you for your comments. But, seriously, can we compare apples to apples here? First off, look at the dietary factors between the two countries, which we know have a much greater influence on cancer risk than antibiotic use. The WHO has some fairly astonishing facts about how many people are undernourished in China. An can you really say "Women in China do not get breast cancer." I realize this is the internet and anything goes...but only if we stand by and let it. Be cautious with your statements and at least try to be accurate.

January, 10, 2013 at 11:51 AM

Tony You are trusting numbers out of China?? You apparently have never been there or never personally dealt with them. Every number we get (currency, corn, antibiotic use/resist, cancer rates) is heavily scrutinized and never entirely accurate. Do you really think they report all of the cancer with their healthcare system, its affordability, let alone it's accessibility? Don't fall into the trap of believing garbage like that

Colo  |  January, 10, 2013 at 12:25 PM

Look how well the ban on antibiotics worked out in Europe. A lot of the farmers did not survive the increased costs of production. Their consumers are paying more or going without, ie, eggs. And this draconian "experiment" hasn't made their people any more or less healthy than they ever were which makes one wonder why, since it's a total bust in Europe, are we still debating.

January, 11, 2013 at 09:25 AM

For real perspective, look at the big picture. Why do we need to give antibiotics to animals? Usually it is because they are being shipped cross-country, kept confined in places that are too overcrowded, and/or nourished in a way that is unnatural to them. For that matter, why do people need antibiotics? It is usually because we are so mobile, so overcrowded in schools and workplaces, and nourished in a way that is unnatural to the way we evolved to eat. If more people worked outside in the open air, had access to healthy food from animals raised on healthy pastures outside in the open air, and paid as much attention to having probiotic foods as we pay to having prescription medicines, better physical and mental health would follow. Antibiotics could be reserved for the emergency care for which they were originally intended, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria would be a non-issue. Why is the beef industry always so intent on going in the same old direction in its approach to animal health? Why is the medical industry so intent upon filling patients with prescription drugs rather than promoting wellness? It is because much more profit is to be had from illness and disease than from good health. Those who profit from illness want our dependence. Independent good health scares anyone who capitalizes on disease. Why was industry so intent, during the early years of the twentieth century, on getting more and more people off the farms and into the cities? Greed is the beast that endeavors to distract from the truths that bring good health through natural means. Gratitude, and the humility inherent in gratitude, is the best antidote. Before we can possibly change directions, we must admit we might have been mistaken.

Colorado  |  January, 11, 2013 at 10:09 AM

Thanks, best comment yet in Drovers. I raise over 3000 cows and couldn't agree more with the above. Hats off to W.E. One other note is the largest reason for the reduction in the use of the same antibiotics in animals as in humans is for the exact problems that you all are trying to defend. OVERUSE!!

Bill O    
Iowa  |  January, 11, 2013 at 10:42 AM

While all this may be true, you are still swimming upstream against growing public sentiment. More and more people don't want growth hormones, anti-biotics and they still don't want pink slime. We have to wake up and start making changes. The pork industry is reacting in a positive manner to public sentiment (enforced by retail end customers due to public sentiment). Change or perish!

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