Antibiotic discussion: Talking point needs perspective

Antibiotic discussion: Talking point needs perspective

Talking points often distort and ignore the broader reality of an issue, and there is no better example exists than with antibiotic use in animal agriculture

TALKING points get used because they're effective. That's especially true when the issue is complicated, the strategy being to repeat an oversimplified statement again and again until it's largely perceived as truth within the general population.

The problem, though, is that talking points often distort and ignore the broader reality of an issue.

No better example of that exists than with the issue of antibiotic use in animal agriculture -- one that has received quite a bit of press coverage.

It seems that the single most-used talking point is something to the effect of: "Farm animals receive 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S."

The implication of that statement is that the animal agriculture industry is failing to judiciously use antibiotics, and that inherently leads to accusations that something must be wrong with various production practices to account for the disproportionate amount of sales on the animal side.

Detractors further assert that animal agriculture is the major contributor to the development of antimicrobial resistance.

Admittedly, on the surface, the talking point is correct. The Food & Drug Administration's most recent sales data indicate that approximately 37 million lb. of antibiotics were sold in 2011, with nearly 80% of those used for animal health and 20% for human health.

But remember, talking points exist to simplify an issue. The data require some interpretation if the comparison is to be meaningful.           

For starters, ionophores need to be removed from the discussion because there is no human equivalent, and, thus, the potential for resistance transfer is nonexistent.

Ionophore sales represent 25% of total antibiotic sales. Therefore, when considering equivalent classes of antibiotics, FDA sales equaled 20.7 million lb. for animals and 7.2 million lb. for people. That tells a different story: The sales ratio moves from 4:1 to less than 3:1.

The complexities and nuances extend further yet. In fact, FDA's report refers to food-producing animals but also includes a note that sales of several classes of antimicrobials are not differentiated between food and non-food animals. As such, the report also includes companion animals.

What's more, FDA points out, "Before making comparisons between human and animal sales and distribution data, there are a number of differences in the circumstances of use of antibacterial drugs in human and veterinary medicine that must be carefully considered. ... It is, therefore, difficult to draw definite conclusions from any direct comparisons between the quantity of antibacterial drugs sold for use in humans and the quantity sold for use in animals."

For example, making meaningful comparisons will require some attention to the number of animals versus people and their respective weight.

By my estimates for weight, approximately 135 billion lb. of livestock (accounting for hogs, sheep, horses, cattle, goats, poultry, dogs and cats) were maintained in the U.S. in 2011 versus approximately 46.5 billion lb. of people. That represents a 3:1 weight ratio among animals and humans.

In other words, the 80/20 talking point misrepresents reality; it's nothing more than an easy out. Pound for pound, antibiotic sales on the animal side (including companion animals) are equivalent to sales on the human side.

Politicians and activist groups are skilled at citing the talking point. They use it because it promotes their political ideology.

That's unfortunate, because science shouldn't be politicized, especially when it comes to serious public health concerns.

Misrepresenting the FDA sales data avoids facing reality, serves as a disservice to the One Health Initiative and fails to procure a real solution to preventing antimicrobial resistance.

What's needed is a unified, science-based approach to addressing antibiotic resistance. Anything less is irresponsible.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:17

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