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Antibiotics in the Animal Health Industry

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In recent years the healthcare industry has put a lot of emphasis on trying to cut down antibiotics use to avoid developing antibiotic resistant bacteria. 

So much of this has been focussed on prescribing the drugs to patients, but in actual fact it’s the animal food industry that’s having a transformative effect on the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria. 

In the last few years the farming industry has made some fantastic leaps in changing their approach to antibiotics in food, but there’s still change on the horizon. Find out more about the history of this topic, as well as where we can go next in this blog. 

How antibiotics have been used in the animal health industry

The first recorded use of antibiotics in farming was during the Second World War, when penicillin was introduced to milking cows to treat bovine mastitis in the 1930s. At the time milk was considered highly susceptible to bacteria contamination, and farmers welcomed the opportunity to ‘purify’ their produce. 

After introducing antibiotics to their animal’s diets, there was another revelation in how they support produce – it was noticed quite quickly that subtherapeutic amounts of antibiotics had a positive impact on feed efficiency and also improved the speed at which the animals grew. That meant healthier, bigger animals that produced more. 

At this point, it seemed that adding antibiotics to an animal’s diet was an all-round good thing. 

However, it wasn’t that simple. It was only a few years later that concerns started to arise.  

What are the benefits, and the drawbacks of antibiotics in animal health? 

We’ve highlighted a couple of the benefits above, but let’s take a closer look at them: 

  • Control of animal diseases – By regularly consuming antibiotics through food, it could keep animal diseases at bay. With healthier stocks of animals, more produce can be expected.
  • More growth – Animals who take on antibiotics showcase accelerated growth
  • Increased produce shelf life – Produce from animals who’ve consumed antibiotics tend to have a longer shelf life.

While there are some benefits, there are also some significant drawbacks to adding antibiotics to animal food. We already mentioned above that leading healthcare bodies are suggesting we are prescribed antibiotics less regularly as bacteria become more immune to the effects of them. 

So consider the fact that our food may be pumped full of them, and you can see how the problem can continue to escalate. In fact, the food you eat on a regular basis from your favourite stores might hold strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

In 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended that use of antibiotics in animal food be reduced due to the increasing risk that is posed of antibiotic resistant bacteria. They strongly suggested restrictions on using antibiotics on healthy animals to promote growth, and said instead to only use them on unwell animals, and only use antibiotics that pose the smallest risk to human health. 

So, although there are some benefits to using antibiotics in animal food, it’s safe to say that there are some very significant consequences if these practices were to continue unregulated. 

What are companies doing about it? 

Due to the suggestions from WHO and the risks involved in using antibiotics too frequently, many companies are moving away from using it. 

In the last few years, a huge amount of new regulations have come into play to reduce the use of antibiotics in animal foods. And now, a recent survey has found that farmers in the UK have cut their antibiotics use in livestock by 50% in the last 5 years. And antibiotic use in organic livestock is four times lower than the UK average. 

While this is undoubtedly a huge amount of progress in a very short space of time, there’s still lots of work to do and pressure on food companies to change their approach to antibiotics is at an all time high. 

As such, many companies in the food and farming industry are now looking for ways they can keep their animals healthy, productive and disease-free, without the negative consequences. 

What are the alternatives? 

So, what are the possible alternatives to using antibiotics in animal food? Generally, the best option to not relying on them is to take preventative action. 

Instead of treating illnesses, the preferred approach is to provide the animals with optimal nutrition, vaccinate them and invest in diagnostic equipment that can help to detect and diagnose any issues. 

As companies look for new, innovative solutions to antibiotics, many are spending millions on developing microbes that could complement the animal’s health. The composition of these living microbes can be manipulated to specifically target different bacterias. 

This method, while promising, is very much still in development and results are currently not as reliable as we’d like them to be. What’s more, these types of developments definitely aren’t cheap. Innovation in this area can be extremely expensive and, when they’re ready to be used, there’s no telling what the price point will be like for farmers. However, it’s an exciting step in the right direction. 

With that in mind, it still stands that the best, and likely cheapest, way to work without antibiotics is to look after nutrition, keep up with vaccinations and look out for illnesses with up-to-date diagnostic equipment. 

What’s next? 

As we’ve mentioned, the pressure on the industry to cut down the use of antibiotics is high, and there’s still more work that can be done. However, the UK has been incredibly quick to react and change the way they work to support this new approach. 

Cutting down on the use of antibiotics in animal food is an instrumental part in reducing the antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the UK industry has taken huge steps in helping this happen. That’s not to say it’s easy, or cheap to do so, but the innovation and change we’ve so far is certainly promising. 

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