Paul Sundberg, is the assistant vice president of veterinary issues for the National Pork Producers Council. He has been a veterinarian for 19 years, the last six years with NPPC.
Q. Antibiotics used in livestock production seem to be getting a lot of attention. What's the controversy surrounding their use?
A. The issue is whether agricultural antibiotic use poses a risk to public health. Anytime an antibiotic is used, whether in people or animals, there's the potential for resistant organisms to develop. Some theories contend that agricultural use threatens public health because it may increase resistant foodborne pathogens. Then, if those organisms cause disease in people, their medical treatment, if needed, would be more difficult. The problem is that there's no data to tell us how likely this is to occur.
Q. Why is this issue on the table now?
A. This is not a new issue. Science has been searching to understand the relationship between all antimicrobial use and the selection of resistant bacteria for years. Media attention has increased since the emergence of "superbugs" from human antibiotic use has surfaced.
Q. What is antibiotic resistance and how is it caused? What do we know about the potential human health risk?
A. We know that antibiotic resistance has been part of bacteria's self-protection mechanism long before humans discovered and started using antibiotics. It's part of how bacteria adapted to survive and therefore occurs naturally.
Bacteria use many mechanisms to counter the effects of antibiotics. We know that bacteria can multiply quickly. Either through mutations that occur during replication or through properties that some bacteria contain they become less sensitive to how antibiotics affect them.
Concerning the potential for human health risk, just because these less sensitive bacteria are able to multiply when a particular antibiotic is present doesn't mean that the bacteria will cause a problem. Many factors have to line up before there is any human health risk. Bacteria have to survive in numbers high enough to cause an infection. The host (person) has to come into contact with the bacteria and allow colonization, which takes the right conditions of exposure, immune response and so forth. Then the bacteria have to be able to cause a disease condition – we are all exposed to many bacteria every day that don't make us sick. Then the person has to be ill enough to seek medical attention. And just because a bacteria is resistant to one antibiotic doesn't mean it's resistant to others. There has yet to be a documented case of treatment failure in a person because of antibiotic use on the farm.
Q. Hasn't the European Union already banned antibiotics for livestock? A. No. The EU has suspended the use of certain antibiotics for growth promotion and feed efficiency – not disease treatment. There is an opportunity to review the information as science catches up to the process. The EU has not banned the use of antibiotics to treat diseases. In fact, those countries may have a wider variety of agricultural antibiotics than what's available in the United States.
Q. How will all of this affect pork producers' ability to raise and care for their animals through antibiotics today and in the future?
A. Just like segregated early weaning, vaccinations, phase feeding, all-in/all-out production, or split-sex feeding, antibiotics are another tool that pork producers may use in their operations to let them efficiently supply a safe, high-quality product. Producers need timely, economical access to safe and effective products in order to provide food to the United States and the world.
Q. How concerned should pork producers be? What can they do now?
A. This is certainly an issue of which all animal and poultry producers need to be aware. It is one of public health and consumer confidence. We need to be rock solid that the industry base decisions and policies on scientific data and we need to make that position known. Otherwise decisions about use and availability will be at the politicians' discretion.
Pork producers need to take responsibility in using antibiotic products wisely every time they reach for one. Get professional advice. Producers should review production practices and antibiotic use with their veterinarian. Then use the product only when indicated and only according to the labeled directions or as directed by their veterinarian. That is the best way to continue to have access to effective products and to maintain the consumer's confidence in the pork they buy.