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“Superbug” Discovery Could Generate Increased Consumer Pressure on Antibiotics

The revelation that a bacteria resistant to antibiotics of last resort was found in a Pennsylvania woman prompted a flurry of media activity. Increased consumer concern on an already-sensitive topic is understandable in light of such headlines as, “Nightmare Superbug Shows Up in the United States” and “Infection Raises Specter of Superbugs Resistant to All Antibiotics.”

The Washington Post conducted a Q&A with an infectious disease doctor at the University of Pittsburgh who tried to put the development into perspective. He said, “While certainly concerning and something to keep a close eye on from a public health point of view, there is no evidence that this is a widespread problem at this time. Even in the rare event that you get sick from this bacteria, there are treatment options available.”

Since the bacteria has also been detected in pigs, the Post asked about food safety concerns. The doctor stated there is no risk as long as meat is properly handled and cooked to the recommended temperature.

There’s growing consumer concern and rising pressure on the food system about the use of antibiotics in food animals. Antibiotic resistance is a serious issue and one farms and food companies are taking seriously, but, the connection between antibiotics used in animals raised for food and the risk of human antibiotic failure is a complex issue not easily distilled for widespread understanding. Several things must happen before resistant bacteria from a farm can affect people:

  • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria must be present in an animal when it leaves a farm
  • The bacteria must survive sanitation steps during the packaging process
  • The meat must be undercooked, enabling bacteria to survive
  • The bacteria must cause human illness
  • The ill person must receive medical attention and the antibiotic therapy must involve the same class of antibiotic used on the farm
  • The patient must get worse or fail to recover due to the resistant infection

There’s also the perception that antibiotic resistance results from eating meat containing antibiotic residue, but there are strict federal laws in place to prevent unsafe residues in meat. By law, since the 1950’s, the FDA strictly audits and enforces that unsafe levels of antibiotics may not be present in meat before it enters the food supply.

Leading drug companies have recognized the concern about the resistance issue and are making antibiotics available only for treatment and prevention of disease — not growth promotion. Beginning next year, antibiotics important to human medicine will only be available under a Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), which is essentially a prescription from a veterinarian.

There are unanswered questions on the link between animal antibiotic use and human resistance and the issue is still being studied. Until those questions are conclusively answered, the best source of information is sound science in the form of peer-reviewed and published studies. Dr. Peter Davies, BVSC, PhD, professor of Animal Science at the University of Minnesota, says, “There are almost no documented clinical cases where antibiotic resistance was unequivocally tied to animal antibiotic use. So while the risk is not zero, in my opinion, it is extremely low.”

Animal antibiotics must be used responsibly to minimize agriculture’s contribution to antibiotic resistance. But much of the current discussion about antibiotic use is highly polarized, pitting commercial interests against public health interests. It’s important to remember that preventing disease and treating sick animals through the responsible use of antibiotics is the ethical thing to do.

The image “Antibiotics” by Michael Mortensen is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.