Animal funds

The role of consumers in understanding animal antibiotics is essential

What kind of vet is Rick Sibbel?

“I say I’m a passionate ambassador for your food supply,” he says.

Sibbel is president and owner of Executive Veterinary & Health Solutions LLC. As an expert on antibiotic use in animals, he was part of a panel of speakers discussing animal antibiotics and public perceptions at the Animal Agriculture Alliance pre-summit webinar on April 6.

Livestock producers must protect the health and welfare of their livestock through judicious use of antibiotics, according to webinar panelists, but they face growing public pressure against the practice. The public needs to be taught that antibiotic use is essential to ensuring animal welfare as well as a safe and plentiful food supply, Sibbel says.

The case of stewardship

The research and development pipeline for new antibiotics has slowed dramatically over the past two decades, Sibbel says. In short, there is no new broad-spectrum antibiotic on the horizon that can be used in animal, human or environmental medicine, he says. Even if a new antibiotic were introduced, doctors would likely use it as a very last resort as a precaution against overprescribing, rendering it obsolete too soon.

And that doesn’t bode well for a company’s return on investment.

Instead, we’re going to need more government funding for research and development for the good of public health, he says.

In the meantime, there is very strong pressure for governments to regulate that today’s antibiotics should only be used in human medicine in the future.

And that would be apocalyptic, Sibbel said.

“If we don’t have a tool to raise an animal in a healthy way – so that it’s healthy and produces healthy protein – we’ll have a food shortage of epic proportions,” he says.

Ensuring the longevity of the antibiotics we have now and those that may arrive in the future will require the animal, human, and environmental medical communities to come together and practice sustainable stewardship.

What is sustainable?

Several recent surveys have shown that consumers believe that ‘sustainability’ is only about the environmental impact of a production method. But it’s critical that we begin to teach consumers that sustainability is a triad of people, animals, and the planet, says Angela Baysinger, animal welfare manager for Merck Animal Health, North America. If the entire animal agriculture sector – from farm to fork – does not start sharing this message with consumers, we risk social acceptance of using antibiotics on livestock.

Basically, losing an animal to disease is a loss on many levels, she explains. The producer loses income from the sale of the animal, the feed and inputs that have been spent to create and raise the animal, the loss of nutrients intended for the human population of that animal, and above all, there is the loss of animal health and welfare. This is the very definition of unsustainability.

Consumers concerned about animal welfare may be familiar with the five freedoms developed in 1992 by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. But today, these five freedoms are evolving into the five domains, to better connect with consumers.

“The five freedoms — freedom from hunger and thirst; absence of discomfort and pain; the absence of injuries and illnesses; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress – are aspirations,” she says. Instead, the five domains—nutrition, physical environment, health, behavior, and mental state—best help those who study animal welfare have meaningful conversations with consumers.

These same consumers who vote and decide whether animal agriculture will have the social license to operate.

Public latitude

Mandi McLeod of Systems Insight Ltd. says the public is more interested than ever in farmers and the methods they use to raise livestock.

There is a market risk in not doing the right thing, she reminds producers. Ensuring that programs improve the animal’s life is good not only for the animal, but also for the humans caring for that animal, the economic viability of the community, and the environment. It is imperative to help consumers understand that animal antibiotics play a vital role in this regard.

“The ability to have antibiotics for generations after us will depend on how we educate ourselves and use them more appropriately in the future,” says Sibbel. It is a matter of managing the security of the food supply.