The Debate over Non-Therapeutic Antibiotic Use Affects All Veterinarians

by Eric Barchas, DVM

December 6, 2010

In the days before I discovered my calling to veterinary medicine, I experimented with a number of different possible professions. While in the throes of this existential angst, I read a report that claimed students seeking chemical engineering degrees could expect higher starting salaries upon graduation than students engaging in any other course of study. This was my sole motivation for taking several chemical engineering classes in college (although it was not sufficient motivation for me to pursue a career in that field).

In chemical engineering, the most fundamental exercise is optimization of a system. The system generally consists of a chemical reactor with several inputs and outputs. A number of variables (chemical flow rates, catalyst concentrations, reactor temperatures, and so forth) are adjusted in order to optimize for one thing—profit.

Optimizing a system for profit makes perfect sense in chemical engineering. Chemical plants are businesses, and the bottom line is the most important thing to most of them.

Surprisingly, several years later I found myself performing system optimization exercises in vet school, as part of a food animal nutrition class. But in this case, the chemical reactor was replaced with a cow; the inputs included different foods, meals, vitamins and, shockingly, antibiotics; and the variable to be optimized was profit.

We did not optimize for animal health or well-being, or to minimize disease or suffering. We were not working to maximize public health. We optimized solely for profit.

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Do consumers or producers really benefit?

Administering antibiotics to increase profits is known as non-therapeutic antibiotic use, and it is a common practice in food animal production. Perversely, it does not in practice lead to higher profits. Since almost all major food producers use non-therapeutic antibiotics, individual producers don’t really get a competitive edge from them. The potential profits turn instead to lower consumer prices.

But do consumers believe that lower prices justify non-therapeutic antibiotic use?

Non-therapeutic antibiotic use never passed the smell test for me. I don’t think it makes sense to pump animals with bioactive chemicals in order to shave a few cents off the price of a Happy Meal™. I bet that most people see it that way, especially if they know the risks.

The use of non-therapeutic antibiotics recently has come under public scrutiny. Congress is considering legislation (the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA, H.R. 1549/S. 619) that would restrict non-therapeutic antibiotic use. A number of prominent human health agencies support this legislation—the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the American Public Health Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics all cite concerns over antibiotic resistance in their endorsements (view a complete list of the more than 370 organizations supporting PAMTA).

But let’s go back to the smell test. Most people—your clients, your friends, the public at large and probably you—likely share my gut reaction to non-therapeutic antibiotic use: it simply doesn’t make sense. PAMTA, on the other hand, does make sense.

Add your voice to the debate

With major human health organizations and believers in common sense supporting it, who is left to oppose PAMTA? The answer is industrial farm organizations and organized veterinary medicine.

The American Veterinary Medical Association is prominently opposed to PAMTA. The group cites a number of reasons for its stance, but I suspect the real answer is simple—the AVMA appears to be pandering to the food animal industry. If I see it that way, surely most lay people see it that way, too.

But like it or not, the AVMA is the main voice of veterinary medicine in America. When the AVMA supports non-therapeutic antibiotic use, the organization is speaking for you.

Dr. Eric Barchas
Eric Barchas, DVM

You may believe as a small animal veterinarian that antibiotic use in food animals isn’t your problem, but it is. The debate over non-therapeutic antibiotic use affects all veterinarians. It affects us as practitioners because antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria can infect our patients, and we may have no effective treatment options. It affects us as people because those same antibiotic-resistant bacteria can infect us, our families and our friends. It affects us as a community of veterinarians because our reputations and credibility are on the line.

The debate over non-therapeutic antibiotic use does affect small animal veterinarians. It is time for us to move away from the sidelines and add our voices to the debate.

Dr. Eric Barchas is a veterinarian who lives and works in San Francisco. His emphasis is on small animal internal medicine, emergency medicine, dentistry, surgery and wellness. An avid traveler, he has studied lions in Botswana and salmon in southern Chile.