Focus on animal health to reduce antibiotic use in livestock

The negative consequences of the widespread, and sometimes indiscriminate, use of antibiotics in livestock production are of growing concern as it could lead to antibiotic resistance. Dr Hans-Joachim Götz, president of the Federal Association of Practising Veterinarians (BPT) spoke at EuroTier in Hanover, Germany on the wise use of antibiotics.

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The development of antibiotic resistance has been a major issue both in Germany and worldwide. In the EU, a number of possible ways of tackling the problem are being considered. It is declared political intent in Germany to sustainably lower the use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine. The focus is on the livestock finishing sector because, according to a study by the Deutches Institut für Medizinische Dokumentation und Information (German Institute of Medical Documentation and Information), by far the greatest quantity of antibiotics are used in this field.

The matter has been included in the draft of a 16th Amendment to the Arzneimittelgesetzes (Medicinal Products Act), known as the AMG. There are similar considerations at EU level. The BPT expressly welcomes the responsible use of antibiotics in animal husbandry, but does not consider the path chosen in the 16th Amendment to the AMG to be helpful in achieving this objective.

In the BPT’s view, the effective reduction of antibiotic use in animal husbandry can only be achieved by improving animal health, not by capping antibiotic quantities or restricting therapeutic options. The objective of a modern animal health policy must be to avoid illnesses through implementing preventive measures such as vaccinations, improved hygiene, best husbandry management and optimum husbandry conditions.

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However, there will still be diseases in animal herds. In this case the principle of ‘sick animals have a right to treatment’ must apply. Any other approach would be contrary to the principles of animal welfare and responsible animal husbandry. Moreover, after a diagnosis has been made it is often not possible to proceed without using antibiotics.

The fight against pathogens
Vets are certainly aware that the development of disease resistance must be considered carefully when using antibiotics to fight pathogens. That is why, in Germany, at the instigation of the BPT and the Deutsche Bauernverband (German Farmers’ Union), a comprehensive antibiotic monitoring system has been developed in the poultry and pig finishing sectors by the quality assurance scheme for fresh foodstuffs, the QS-System. Work on this commenced in April with a survey on the use of antibiotics in the poultry sector, followed by a similar survey during September on pig finishing farms.

A survey in the cattle sector will probably follow at a later date. The objective of the survey and monitoring exercise is to obtain more concrete information on antibiotic use at farm level and in specific production sectors, to determine who uses antibiotics, when, where, why and how much. This data will allow us to proceed with efforts to improve antibiotic use in animal husbandry.

Antibiotic use Minimising concept
By contrast, in the draft of the 16th Amendment to the AMG, there is mention of an antibiotic use minimising concept. This will only create an additional monitoring mechanism. In the BPT’s view, the 16th Amendment’s therapy index calculation is not sufficient to identify actual problems on a farm and to offer appropriate countermeasures. The treatment options for sick animals must not be restricted at the cost of animal welfare, nor should disease resistance be additionally promoted by narrowing the range of active antibiotics permitted.

Vaccine development
In order to prevent infectious illnesses, greater attention should be paid to the development and use of vaccines. Faster and more precise identification of infectious agents should be enabled by targeted organ removal complying with specific conditions. Providing more information and consulting animal famers about the occurrence of antibiotic resistance can be an effective preventative measure.

In the BPT’s opinion, sustainable reduction of antibiotic use can only be realistically achieved by improving animal health.
However, the animal health aspect is totally neglected in the current draft of the 16th Amendment. A sound foundation to animal health can be laid down in the mother animal and in the method of rearing young stock, but these connections are excluded.  

The use of antibiotics in finishing can be as a result of problems in upstream sections of the value chain. A concept for minimising antibiotic use must, therefore, not exclude these upstream sections, but should begin there. For example clear specifications about vaccines to counter bacterial infections in finishing operations should be provided.

Vet assessments
Germany’s practising livestock vets are closely involved in animal husbandry and production processes. They are responsible for animal health, maintenance of production levels and prevention of animal diseases. This contributes substantially to securing food production, while taking animal welfare and economic efficiency into account. Through their scientific training and regular further obligatory training sessions, our vets are enabled to assess the needs of animals, their health and their well-being in accordance with current scientific knowledge.

This expertise is a pre-requisite for animal husbandry in line with animal welfare and the realisation of this in close co-operation with farmers. In Germany and the EU there should be no competition concerning excessively ambitious antibiotic reduction goals. Decisions for sustainable reduction of antibiotic use must focus on expert competence and be geared towards maintaining and/or improving animal health. The use of antibiotics can only be minimised in line with animal welfare on the basis of the results of effective monitoring. – Lloyd Phillips

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The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.