A Veterinarian’s Letter to the Editor about Antibiotic Resistance, The Hill

by Meghan F. Davis, DVM MPH PhD

This letter responds to the November 5 article “Human antibiotic resistance is not caused by the animals we eat” by Dr. James F. Gaines published in The Hill.

Dear Editor,

In recognition of Get Smart about Antibiotics Week (Nov. 14–20), more clarity around antimicrobial resistance and use of antimicrobial drugs in livestock is needed.

While any uses of these drugs in any setting can favor the growth of resistant bacteria, reducing uses that aren’t absolutely necessary is critical to ensure the future effectiveness of these drugs to treat bacterial infections.

We will not solve the problem of resistant bacteria by focusing only on the use of antimicrobial drugs in people. Scientists around the world warn that overuse of antimicrobials in animal agriculture contributes to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant infections in people.

When animals consume antimicrobials, both “bad” pathogens and “good” bacteria that are resistant are favored to grow. These resistant bacteria can pollute the farm and local communities and also can show up on contaminated meat products sold to consumers. Resistant bacteria also can spread off the farm in dust or water, spread into other animals, and colonize and infect farmers and farm workers.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

While antimicrobial drug residues in meat may influence antimicrobial resistance, as was discussed in the November 5th ope-ed by Dr. Gaines, this is actually not a major driver of antimicrobial resistance, as was implied.

The United States has important programs — from drug labelling to the Food Animal Drug Residue Avoidance Database (FARAD) — to help farmers prevent residues. Instead, antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, which don’t vanish when antimicrobial use is concluded, contaminate the meat products and expose the consumer during the process of food preparation or consumption.

What is of great concern is that the same antimicrobials used to treat sick people are also given to healthy animals, often to try to make the animals grow faster or to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. These practices contribute to the emergence of drug-resistant superbugs that make infections more difficult and costly to treat.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that antibiotics used for promoting growth in food animals will no longer be allowed, beginning in 2017, but several other uses for healthy animals will still be permitted.

In 2018, the state of California will go further when it implements SB27 and limits uses of antimicrobial drugs to those needed to treat disease in livestock. These are two small steps that we hope will help combat the epidemic of antimicrobial resistance, but more are needed.

In the battle to control resistant bacteria, inaction is not an option.

Meghan F. Davis, DVM MPH PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where she does research in environmental microbiology and molecular epidemiology. Before joining the faculty at Johns Hopkins, she worked in clinical veterinary practice, including dairy production, and has written scientific and law publications on the topic of antimicrobial resistance in animal agriculture.

This letter is part of a collection of stories written by clinicians about their firsthand experience with antibiotic resistance and insight into solutions for this critical issue.

Learn more about antibiotics in agriculture.