Antibiotics in the Food System

Rocco Pallin

Recently, the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) and the Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science presented a program titled "Antibiotics in Food: Can Less Do More?" Speakers from universities, the United Nations, research institutions, and the private sector gathered in New York City to showcase topics in antibiotic use for food production, judicious use and antibiotic resistance, strategies for reducing use, and recent research.

The conference was among the NYAS’s recent efforts to highlight the need for new strategies in research on the effects of antibiotics in animals on human health and alternatives, especially due to dramatic increases in drug-resistant bacteria. NYAS has also showcased three pieces of research helping facilitate the re-evaluation of antibiotic use in the food system.

One study, led by panel expert François Malouin, PhD, found a flavonoid compound in cranberries to be effective against methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), although the scientific mechanism remains unclear. In Canada, where the Malouin conducted the study, poultry farmers have access to feed with antibiotic additives, but “many on-farm studies have revealed the widespread presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in broiler chickens.”

Farmed chickens given feed supplemented with commercial cranberry extract had fewer Enterococcal infections and fewer early deaths without negative changes in chicken quality or intestinal health. More research is needed, but this might mean that reduced antibiotic use in farmed chickens could lead to increased health and survival.

Another study on Listeria monocytogenes, conducted by James Marsden, PhD, presents the potential of an advanced oxidation technology for inexpensive Listeria control in food production. By treating food production surfaces, the researchers found reductions in several strains of L. monocytogenes. The potential of this technology is particularly timely; the U.S. has already seen three multistate listeriosis outbreaks in 2016.

The final study surrounded the success of voluntary suspension of a certain antibiotic used in chicken hatcheries in 2004 after the discovery of high levels of cephalosporin-resistant E. coli in grocery store chicken. The reduction in use lowered rates of E. coli and salmonella in humans, but when the ban was lifted, both re-emerged in the chickens and in humans. This study’s results point to the human health benefits of reducing antibiotics in chicken produced for human consumption.

The event highlighted these studies and other topical issues, particularly focusing on the extent to which antibiotics are present in the food system, the way food system antibiotics might be contributing to antibiotic resistance in both animals and humans, possible effects of the increase in antibiotic use globally, and potential alternatives to antibiotic use like bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria—and probiotics.

One session covered the judicious use principal: the veterinary medicine practice of “[maximizing] therapeutic efficacy and [minimizing] selection of resistant microorganisms.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is increasing pressure on animal producers to reduce the use of antibiotics out of concern for animal and human health. FDA regulatory changes include giving veterinarians control over antibiotic use in animals rather than leaving control in the hands of animal feed producers. Judicious use of antibiotics means managing “human treatment of animals, high food safety, reasonable costs of production,” and antimicrobial resistance.

Curbing antibiotic use in animals can contribute to a healthier food supply and have positive economic effects on farmers. Further research is required to understand the full effects of reduced antibiotic use on public health. According to the NYAS, “developing evidence-based interventions and antibiotic alternatives has become a significant public health need at the global level” as the worldwide demand for animal products continues to rise.