Veterinarians’ panel discusses antibiotics issues
OCEAN CITY, Md. — A panel of veterinarians discussed the impacts of No Antibiotics Ever on chicken production, consumer acceptance and poultry health at the National Meeting on Poultry Health, Processing, and Live Production at the Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel on Oct. 9.
Moderator Don Ritter of Mountaire Farms, Inc. posed a series of NAE-related questions to the avian veterinarians on the panel:
Dr. John Smith, president of Alectryon LLC, a commercial broiler health consulting service, who was formerly director of health and hatchery services for Fieldale Farms Corporation;
Dr. Bob Owen, director of technical services for Best Veterinary Solutions, Inc. and formerly director of veterinary services for Hubbard LLC;
Dr. Chuck Hofacre, a retired professor in the University of Georgia department of population health and the director of clinical services at the university’s Poultry Diagnostic & Research Center.
He now runs the Southern Poultry Research Group; and
Dr. Joel Cline, a corporate veterinarian with Wayne Farms LLC; he served with the Alabama Department of Agriculture for 16 years.
Impact needs more research
The panelists have extensive experience in NAE and all appeared to agree with Owen’s comment that “It’s been a long bloody road and a lot of animals have lost their lives who I don’t think necessarily needed to lose their lives. We’re starting to get it figured out.
“I will never support never using antibiotics,” Owen continued. “Sometimes they’re necessary and I will go on record as a veterinarian wanting to preserve the use of antibiotics when animals are really sick.”
Owen noted NAE “has forced my profession to take a look at some of our practices.” He said antibiotics have been used “maybe to cover up the ills of how we’ve handled eggs and the cleanliness of the hatchery. NAE is showing, if we get the hatcheries cleaner, it all works.”
Smith said some antibiotics had been overused in the poultry industry. “We wore tetracycline out. We wore most of the sulfonamides out. . … I have no doubt we misused and wore out some of our tools.”
Hofacre agreed, but said, “Other animal species have a lot more antibiotics available to them. We can say we wore them out, . . . but you didn’t have many choices. Our usage as therapeutics has probably worn out; we’ve got resistance.
“The choices we had even for preventative are limited as well so we can say we wore them out, but in essence, we didn’t wear out any more than anyone else would have. The fact is we didn’t have very many choices of antibiotics we can use.”
All panelists agreed that research is needed on the relationship between agricultural antibiotic use and human health. Hofacre, who has served on several expert panels including a World Health Organization panel, said all panels concluded “we have no clue of the impact of use of antibiotics in food animals on the level of antimicrobial resistance in the bacteria of humans. We know it impacts some; we don’t know how much.”
He noted, however, “I think anything we can do to minimize usage of antibiotics is good for the animals and may be good for humans.”
Cline said he “has not heard anything that convinced me” that antibiotic use in poultry had an impact on human health, “[b]ut I don’t think that excuses me from thinking about how to use antibiotics judiciously.”
Owen added that some had predicted antibiotics in the food supply were “going to lead to multi-drug-resistant species coming down through the food chain and the human physicians were going to end up with intractable gastrointestinal diseases in hospitals. Certainly, that has not come to pass.
“This has evolved to the people now think if they take a bite of chicken, they’re going to get a mouthful of antibiotics. We’ve done a very, very poor job of countering that. You never hear of withdrawal times or all the things that we, as food-supply veterinarians, have to do if we do treat with antibiotics.”
Smith said, “The fact that I can’t use an ionophore in order to put that [NAE] label on the package is absolute insanity. There is not one shred of evidence that those drugs impact human health. Those drugs would prevent so much disease and so much animal suffering and do so much to improve the profitability of our family farmers and the cost of that product to the consumers and the environmental impact.
“It’s just insanity to try to sell a piece of chicken,” he concluded.
Owen agreed. “Not using ionophores is throwing the baby out with the bathwater and we’re causing unjustifiable harm to these animals in doing it,” he said. “Veterinarians in Europe got together, and they went to their FDA and they said. … ‘We don’t use ionophores because of their antibiotic property. We use them because they’re anticoccidiostats and they’re a valuable part of our ability to treat chickens.’
“They won the fight. Ionophore anticoccidials are classified in their own classification and they’re using it in their NAE programs over there.
“It is tantamount to injustice to not be able to use this. It’s not important to human health. We don’t use them as antibiotics,” he stressed.
Countering consumer perceptions
The panel considered why consumers buy NAE products. Owen observed, “I believe customers see one [package of chicken] labeled as NAE and one conventional and think to themselves — because they don’t know any better and we don’t inform them — ‘NAE must be better.’”
Hofacre noted most of the restaurant executives he has worked with do not differentiate between antibiotic resistance and antibiotic residues. “To them it’s all the same. Even though we tell them every day that there is withdrawal and there’s no level of antibiotics that’s detectable in meat, they still don’t differentiate,” he said.
In addition, Smith reported consumers think NAE makes life better for chickens and “I think they believe [NAE] makes us do a better job and we’ll take better care of the chickens. I think … everybody in here tries to do that regardless of what’s in the feed or what’s in the water.
“They think it makes it better and I would disagree categorically with that.”
Hofacre said the companies have a role in consumer misapprehension.
“I think we play into that as well, at least our marketing departments for the companies do,” he said. “If you look at almost every one of the NAE [consumer opinions,] there’s a [chicken] welfare component that’s been stuck on to that NAE. I think we play into that consumer miseducation.”
Growers have a different take on NAE, Owen said: “The growers look at you and they say, ‘How can this be better for the welfare of these birds?’”
Only 4 1/2 years experience
All panelists agreed, having seen NAE affect the health of broilers. They shared Smith’s assessment, “The big problems are coccidiosis and necrotic enteritis.”
Hofacre confirmed, “You can put coccidia as number 1, 2 and 3 on the list of impacts. …You’re going to have a lot more infectious joint issues. You’ll have more kinky back, …more infectious arthritis and I think it all goes back to the coccidia and the gut damage.
But there is a solution, Owen said. “Getting the other husbandry issues right makes all of this go away,” he said. “The gut health improves, cocci control becomes better.”
But he mentioned a research study that showed if you squeeze the downtime, “cocci control becomes a real problem.”
Cline added, “In the hatchery, it’s pretty easy to see what you prop up with the antibiotic. You prop up dirty setters and poor in ovo sanitation and the dirty egg pack.”
In the broiler house, he said antibiotics have been used to prop up poor litter management.
But, he said, “If we’re going to be successful in NAE, we have to pay attention…. If we get that right, the birds will get it right too.”
“We have 60 years [experience] with antibiotics,” Cline reminded the group, “but only 4-1/2 years with NAE.”
Smith said, “To a point, looser density and increased downtime is better for the birds, whether they’re conventional or NAE. NAE at this point may be a little more fragile.
“I think there’s more return in the system for the cost of doing those things.”
Vegetarian diet misguided
The panelists also agreed all-vegetable diets are not natural for chickens.
“A chicken is an omnivore,” Owen said. “Since we’ve gone to all veggie, the litter quality is not quite as good and, as a result, we see more foot pad issues and more leg issues, so I’m not convinced that all veggie is where we need to be.”
Smith wondered aloud, “Why a carnivorous person who’s about to eat a chicken wants the chicken to be a vegetarian I’m not totally sure. I think it goes back to BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy; mad cow disease], which has got nothing to do with a monogastric bird.
“It makes the diet more expensive. I’m convinced that it makes litter moisture control a lot harder and that has the consequences on foot pads and hock burn and ammonia and corneal ulcers.
“In some quarters there’s the perception that you need to [feed a vegetable diet] to make the NAE work and I disagree with that. I think bad animal proteins and rancid fat are bad for chickens and they’re probably worse for NAE. But if you had good quality animal protein and good animal fats, that might help you meet the ideal amino acid profile without using excess protein and actually improve the situation.”
The impact of NAE on food safety also was discussed. “Necrotic enteritis doesn’t result in greater food safety issues,” Owen said. “What I see is a lot more uniformity issues in a flock that has big birds and small birds. That results in more errors in the processing plant. …Research shows small birds coming into the plant result in higher salmonella, higher campylobacter, high E. coli levels. So indirectly, NAE probably does increase our risk while we’re transitioning and learning how to keep birds healthy and not have necrotic enteritis.”
Ritter invited the panelists to share their “favorite go-to recipe” for treating common diseases without an antibiotic.
Smith said, “I have rarely found any [alternative treatments such as probiotics, prebiotics and organic acids] that have given me a return on investment. They have been uniformly disappointing. I have almost never found a statistically significant impact or something I want to spend money on.”
Not all panelists agreed. Hofacre said, “Gut health for salmonella, for clostridium, is important so … I like one of the prebiotics in the diet and I like having an organic acid in the diet.I think that does help.
“Remember, we’re not trying to do as good as an antibiotic because we can’t use an antibiotic. We have to do what’s best to maintain gut health. Forget that gold standard of bacitracin or virginiamycin. A combination of products is what I have found over years in practice.”
For farms at greater risk, he said, “We may begin one of the water treatment products two or three days before the farm usually breaks with necrotic enteritis.Teaching flock supervisors and service techs … [t]he quicker you detect the fact that mortality is beginning to rise, then you will see the benefit of some of these nonantibiotic alternatives. . ..
“My biggest goal is cocci control,” Hofacre said. “I think we can replace that cocci flora in the house, you’re going to go through some rough patches to do that.”
Owen cautioned, “We must insist on knowing what we have in the [alternative] products we’re using. I use a lot of probiotics. For interventions, I use live bugs [bacillus and lactic acid bacteria]…. They’re live bugs. They need to be kept under certain conditions so they’re live when we give it to the animals. Know what you’re using and take care of it and administer it properly.
“It’s never going to work as well as the old-time stuff but it’s never going to work if it’s not an effective product,” Owen said.
Cline noted there are so many variables in a house that it is difficult to measure the impact of a product. “Nothing is really working the way we want it to. Alternative products are doing something.”
The annual conference was sponsored by Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.
1-800-634-5021 410-822-3965 Fax- 410-822-5068
P.O. Box 2026 Easton, MD 21601-8925