Tackling Superbug Challenge

Raising Food Animals without Antibiotics
Representational Image
Representational ImageFile/GK


Globally food animals are being extensively reared not only as a source of nutrition but also a source of income. Demand of animal protein for human consumption is rising at an unprecedented rate and is expected to double during the first half of this century.

Worldwide around 12% of the human population depends solely on livestock for their livelihood and the sector accounts 40% of global agricultural gross domestic product (GDP).

The rapidly growing population and urbanization followed by improved economy and purchasing power, has led to increased demand for animal based products, which has necessitated the uncontrolled use of antimicrobials for growth promotion among food animals.

Scientific evidences demonstrate that over/ inappropriate use and misuse of antibiotics in food animals and the subsequent contamination of the environment can contribute to the development and emergence of antibiotic resistance.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a silent pandemic which has the potential to be more deadly than COVID-19 and is reportedly the third-leading underlying cause of deaths world-wide. It has been predicted that the day when medicine no longer finds enough help from antibiotics may be just around the corner.

World Health Organization strongly recommends an overall reduction in the use of all classes of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals, including complete restriction of these antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention without diagnosis.

The rise and spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is creating a new generation of ‘superbugs’ that cannot be treated with existing medicines. The impacts of leaving AMR unchecked are wide ranging and extremely costly, not only in financial terms but also in terms of global health, food sustainability and security, environmental wellbeing and socio-economic development.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a global health concern that impacts all countries and all people, regardless of their wealth or status. Antibiotics are used in food animals for the same reasons they are used in humans, as to treat and control diseases and ensure good health.

When an animal exhibits clinical signs of an illness or a condition like a respiratory infection or a skin infection, a veterinarian may prescribe an antibiotic drug to treat that condition, just as a doctor would with a human who is sick.

Antibiotic use has always been associated with the development of resistance. Indeed, whenever an antibiotic is consumed, it eliminates susceptible bacterial cells, leaving behind or selecting those unusual strains that continue to grow in its presence through a Darwinian selection process.

Those resistant variants then multiply, becoming the predominant bacterial population, and transmit their genetic resistance characteristics to offspring. Ensuring the health and well-being of animals raised for food is both an ethical obligation and a critical component of providing safe food products.

Antibiotics are an important part of animal health programs, but their use has come under scrutiny because of the rise of antibiotic resistance globally. Efforts have been made to improve antibiotic stewardship in animal production systems, with different countries often adopting different approaches for enhancing the responsible use of antibiotics.

Antibiotics can also be used to prevent disease and many times, it is easier and better for animal welfare to control total herd health through early prevention of a contagious illness. There are extensive guidelines about how antibiotics must be used to ensure safety for both people and animals. All antibiotics used to keep animals healthy have been evaluated through a rigorous approval process that shows them to be safe and effective.

How to prevent or slow down the emergence of antimicrobial resistance:

The challenges with the emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance are very complex and have multiple effects not only on animals, but on humans and the environment as well and the same requires a global response. Recognizing the growing importance and impacts of AMR, a National Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance (NAP-AMR) has been formulated, which is a well-designed comprehensive plan that incorporates all the essential objectives of the Global Action Plan (GAP-AMR), and promises to address the important policy and regulatory issues in relation to antibiotic use according to the “One Health Approach”.

Significant success in tackling AMR in food-producing animals can be achieved by responsible­ antimicrobial usage across all sectors of livestock production through collaboration between government, vets and livestock farmers. Strengthening regulatory frame-work and implementation of strict legislative guidelines, imposing a special antibiotic tax while using antibiotics in food producing animals, banning without prescription sales of antibiotics, developing/ strengthening robust surveillance system that accounts for use and/or consumption of antibiotics in the animal/food/livestock sector would go a long way. There is a need of strengthening infection prevention and control, promotion of investments in research, development and innovations, conduct capacity building sessions of all stake-holders, organize effective IEC campaigns and public awareness.

The livestock food production industry represents a major consumer of antibiotics, but the AMR risks within these production systems are still not fully understood. Precision farming, cost-effective DNA sequencing and the increased adoption of machine learning technologies offer the opportunity to develop methods giving a better understanding and quantification of AMR risks in livestock farming environments. Some of the promising alternative products like, phytobiotics, immune modulators, acidifiers and enzymes can be incorporated into comprehensive herd/ flock health management programs. Encouraging use of antimicrobial peptides, probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics can offer alternatives to antibiotics to be used in food producing animals. Use of stem cell derived peptides, hemofilteration devices and Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)-cas system has shown promising results to tackle AMR.

Encouraging use of novel nano-particles/ nano-antibiotics like Zn doped CuO having high and long-lasting microbial effect on multidrug resistant-strains of E. coli and S. aureus as well as no toxicity to human beings. The use of phage therapies, viz., Listeria phage products, as food preservatives, has recently gained great interest; reveal the true potential of this promising biological intervention technology against the emergence and dissemination of antimicrobial resistant phenotypes as well as human and zoonotic pathogens. Use of bacteriocins, a group ribosomal synthesized peptides or proteins, and fecal microbiota transplant therapy have attracted considerable attention in the area of antimicrobial research. Further developing alternative methods of producing animal-origin foods, like, lab-grown/ synthetic meat, etc, is one way to minimize environmental pollution and development of superbugs and AMR genes. Lastly encouraging and incentivizing livestock farmers to adopt “no antibiotics ever” (NAE) or “raised without antibiotics” (RWA) approach to animal production systems would pave way to better future.

Success against AMR can only be achieved when the public, experts from diverse fields such as clinical research, microbiology, veterinary medicine, medical health, genetics and computational engineering, imaging and modeling would work in collaboration to evolve strategies and develop novel therapeutics to tackle this emerging global problem. A One Health response is vital to combat superbugs and will help save millions of lives, preserve antimicrobials for generations and secure the future from drug-resistant pathogens.

Dr. Faazil Bashir Rather is a Veterinarian.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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