I don’t really have a pet pig but I have friends who do. Yeah, they’re odd – the people, not the pigs – but that’s another story. For now, let’s focus on the use of antibiotics with all creatures, great and small. We will examine pigs as well as people, cows, goats, chickens and cats.

Most of us have been following the animal antibiotics controversy, it’s been raging on for well over a decade. Some fact-free hand-wringers see a rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria and immediately demand all such medicines be banned from agricultural use and that we follow the European Union model; ban all nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics on food animals. They seem to love the doomsday scenario, gleefully spouting off reports about the worst of all possible worlds; the Great Black Plague that nearly obliterated Europe in the 14th century.

For most of the anti-ag opponents, the fact that most antibiotics used in animal agriculture are not used with humans doesn’t matter. The fact that the problems seen in hospitals and homes is caused by a chronic over-prescription of antibiotics for human illnesses, even when the problem is viral, doesn’t matter. The fact that antibiotic uses are tied to weight so of course a 1,200 pound bull requires more medicine than a 120 pound person doesn’t matter, either. The crazies on this issue just want to get rid of all ag meds.  

Dr. Richard Raymond, former USDA/FSIS Undersecretary and currently a consultant to several pharmaceutical companies, dismisses this as mostly stuff and nonsense:
“It remains to be seen if this action actually will decrease antibiotic resistance in pathogens affecting human health. It has not done so after 10 years of a similar ban in Denmark, and my personal belief is that this will not affect human health at all, but time will tell.”  

How far has this anti-antibiotic lunacy gone? The PigSite News Desk, a British-based publication, reported that England’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, said sick animals should be slaughtered rather than treated as part of a strategy to reduce antibiotic resistance in humans.

Robin Hargreaves, President of the British Veterinary Association, objected:
“As veterinary surgeons our first duty is to the animals under our care, and that means providing the most appropriate treatment. To suggest that treatable animals should be slaughtered makes no sense in terms of animal health, public health, or the rural economy.

“We know that the biggest cause of antibiotic resistance in humans is the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in human medicine and this is highlighted in the joint report on resistance from the Department of Health and Defra.”

Back to the human population for a moment: The Center for Disease Control estimates antibiotic-resistant bacteria are responsible for 2 million infections and 23,000 deaths annually. The CDC also estimates that up to half of human prescriptions for antibiotics are unnecessary or inappropriate. The inference, of course, is the core of the problem is human usage, not animal usage. Momma might insist that little Junior be prescribed a useless Z-Pac for his viral-caused sniffles but a penny pinching rancher will never dose his cattle with expensive antibiotics unless it’s absolutely necessary for disease control. And that use as a growth promotant? It’s quickly going away, forced by consumer demand.

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, nudged the debate toward the human medicine cabinet with a comment he made last year:
“Antibiotic resistance is rising for many different pathogens that are threats to health. If we don’t act now, our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives.”

But there is some cleaning up of the act by animal agriculture. Cutting back on antibiotic use as a growth promotant has become necessary. Driving indiscriminate agricultural usage down that long and dusty farm road is the FDA and their just announced agreement with pharmaceutical companies. Twenty-five out of twenty-six companies, responsible for selling 99.6 percent of the targeted drugs have pledged to stop selling their antibiotic products for ‘off label’ uses like growth promotants.

The list includes major manufacturers such as Pfizer subsidiary Zoetis, Bayer Healthcare, Novartis Animal Health, and Eli Lilly’s Elanco. The lone holdout, unidentified by the FDA for some reason, is a very small company hardly making more than a thimbleful of meds per day.

Some interesting non-ag comments on the subject:

Laura Rogers, director for the Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming for the Pew Charitable Trusts:
“The FDA and drug makers appear to have passed the first big test of the agency’s voluntary approach. This is very encouraging … but there’s a lot more to do.”

Avinash Kar, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council:
“The FDA is just limiting antibiotic use for growth promotion, but the same animals are given the same antibiotics because of the crowded conditions. Current levels of antibiotic use are likely to continue, but just with a different justification and label. That won’t do anything to protect human health.”

Steven Roach, Senior Analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working:
“First, these letters submitted by the drug companies are not binding, so the companies can still stop participating at any time. Even more important, FDA has done nothing to limit the continued use of antibiotics for routine disease prevention. In terms of dose, duration, and number of animals the drug is being administered to, this type of use can be identical to growth promotion, which the FDA is asking the companies to phase out.”

(Editor’s note: Is Mr. Roach really preaching Dame Sally’s ridiculously cruel and inhumane approach?)

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.):
“The FDA’s voluntary guidance is an inadequate response to the overuse of antibiotics on the farm with no mechanism for enforcement and no metric for success.”

Slaughter is sponsoring the Preservation of Antibiotics and Medical Treatment Act, a bill to ban the use of medically important antibiotics for animal growth purposes. 

But here is how far afield this nonsense can go. Next week, Seattle’s city council will debate the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Yes, the leaders of that large, urban village in the upper northwest, most of who never got any closer to agriculture than growing a tomato plant in a milk carton are considering regulatory action. OK some of them own livestock - a couple of kittens, a dog or two, maybe a pet pig.

Defending science and sensibility against their almost certainly uneducated attack, Washington Cattlemen’s Association Executive Vice President Jack Field will attend the meeting.

Jack Field’s comment: “I’m planning on attending and testifying because I think it is very important to explain to the Seattle City Council just what it is and what it means to be a cattleman here in Washington. . .to explain first-hand the judicious use of antibiotics and how we go about raising animals. The idea that there is just this widespread abuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture in the livestock industry is absolutely absurd. The last thing I can afford to do is to just go out and blindly apply a product.”

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