Antibiotics have been used in animal rearing for the past several decades. Over time, it has become clear that traces of the antibiotics used in livestock are making their way into humans and contributing to antibiotic resistance, a serious concern for public health with complex and expensive ramifications for the agriculture and medical industries. While the most obvious solution may be reducing the antibiotics used in agriculture, this may have some unintended consequences.
Antibiotic stewardship is considered to be a core principle when it comes to antibiotics and animal health. How we treat the animals we eat is inherent to the quality of the food supply and has a direct impact on human health. While reducing antibiotics in animals can benefit both animal and human health, the long term impressions on the food supply have yet to be elucidated.
From an economic perspective, reducing the use of antibiotics could lead to increased prices for meats and milk, which has a direct impact on farmers and consumers. Some countries, such as Denmark, have already reduced their reliance on antibiotics and have taken the economic effects in stride. Perhaps this can serve as a blueprint for others to follow.
Science is leading the way when it comes to potential alternatives to antibiotics, with probiotics standing out as a viable option. Bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria—are also emerging as possible candidates to replace the antibiotics used in veterinary science. It remains to be seen whether or not these alternatives can be as effective as their medicinal counterparts, produced in mass quantities, and be accepted by farmers and consumers.
It will take tremendous and continuous work on the part of industry, science, consumers, and regulators to develop a sustainable, competitive, and healthy food system. What is needed is the collective commitment to act.
One year after the White House unveiled its first ever national plan to combat antibiotic resistance, and as a stream of restaurant chains commit to sourcing antibiotic-free food, it is time to examine how reducing antibiotics in agriculture can turn out to be the best prescription for a healthier food supply.
Join The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science at The New York Academy of Sciences on June 3rd for Antibiotics in Food: Can Less Do More? and take part in the discussion with experts in public health, animal health, agriculture, and food safety addressing what a reduction in antibiotics means for industry, public health, and consumers.
Lindsay Monaco, MPH, is a Program Coordinator at The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science, a program of the New York Academy of Sciences dedicated to developing and advancing science-based solutions to the pressing challenges in the field of nutrition.