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Dr. Brian Lubbers: The future of antibiotic use in cattle

December 9, 2019

Will agriculture ever completely move away from antibiotics in animals?

As consumer demand for antibiotic-free beef increases, we must consider the possibility of a future without antibiotics. What role does nutrition play in responsible antibiotic use and efficacy? Should we be more concerned about antimicrobial resistance in animals? Dr. Brian Lubbers, director of clinical microbiology at the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Library, shares his perspective on the future of antibiotic use and the challenges producers are facing.

The following is an edited transcript of Tom Martin’s interview with Dr. Brian Lubbers. Click below to hear the full audio.

Tom:              The use of antibiotics raises all sorts of issues, including a future without them, as antibiotic resistance continues to outpace the search for a solution. In the meantime, there are consumer concerns and pressures and questions about the role of nutrition in responsible antibiotic use. What about vaccine efficacy? What about the role of the Alltech Nutrigenomics product, Actigen, in improving antibiotic efficacy?


                        Here to talk about these issues is Dr. Brian Lubbers, director of the clinical microbiology section of the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. His teaching and research interests include antimicrobial stewardship and therapy, antimicrobial resistance and the application of antimicrobial susceptibility testing in food animals. Thanks for joining us, Dr. Lubbers.


Brian:             Thank you.


Tom:              Let's first talk about this race to get ahead of antibiotic resistance. Who's ahead in that, us or them?


Brian:             History has told us repeatedly that, whenever we develop a new antimicrobial, that bacteria will adapt and change, and they will find ways to become resistant to those treatment therapies we have.


Tom:              So, it's a never-ending chase.


Brian:             It's a never-ending chase.


Tom:              How does the problem of antibiotic resistance present in livestock, and what's the impact on production?


Brian:             It's actually something that probably doesn't get as much attention as it should. I think, from the agricultural perspective, when we talk about antimicrobial resistance, we hear a lot about the implications of using antibiotics in agriculture and how that causes issues for resistance in human pathogens. My laboratory actually does testing on bacterial pathogens and livestock, and we have seen a trend over the last few years that shows that the bacteria that are of interest to us — particularly Mannheimia haemolytica, which is one of the bacteria that causes bovine respiratory disease or pneumonia — we are seeing increasing rates of resistance in that particular bacteria.


Tom:              Are producers sensitive to consumer concerns about the use of antibiotics in dairy and beef cattle?


Brian:             I think the whole industry understands those concerns. That's a very challenging position for both producer and veterinarian, when you're asked to consider a use in an animal that may potentially lead to resistance down the road. I certainly understand those consumer concerns, because that equation changes dramatically if I'm the person that has that infection. So, I do think the industry is aware of it. We're trying to find ways to address those concerns, and that really is antimicrobial stewardship.


Tom:              What kinds of challenges do producers face when they're trying to respond to this consumer awareness and concern?


Brian:             I think one of the challenges is simply understanding how we use antimicrobials in food animal production. There are a lot of misconceptions around that concept. I think there are also challenges to things that we're being asked to, and what I see as trends in the future — things we'll be asked to do in the future certainly come with some challenges as far as adopting technologies, how we'll implement those technologies effectively in a way that we will not probably ever completely get away from antimicrobials but, certainly, reduce our reliance on them.


Tom:              What are some of the more troubling misconceptions that you've identified?


Brian:             I think the biggest one that I hear is that all meat contains antibiotics. That is not true. The meat that we have is safe. The antibiotics that we have have been tested by the FDA producers that adhere to guidelines so that, when those animals enter the food chain, they are safe to consume.


Tom:              So, what is the state of antibiotic use in the beef industry and the dairy industry as well?


Brian:             The state currently is that we still use a lot of antibiotics, quite simply. If you look at the sales data that is collected by the US Food and Drug Administration, beef is the number one as far as percentage of human medically important antimicrobials that they use. Those numbers have dropped since the implementation of the recent FDA guidance and the Veterinary Feed Directive. I think they will continue, and yes, there has been some legislative pressure to make those changes, but really, that has been the industry voluntarily accepting those guidelines and looking at our production practices and trying to figure out ways to use antibiotics and in a better way.


Tom:              Is it acceptable to administer antibiotics and vaccine simultaneously, or are there some effects on efficiency of vaccines when antibiotics are introduced?


Brian:             It does depend a little on the vaccine. If you have a live bacterial vaccine, you can have some effects.


                        Certainly, we'd never want those things in the same syringe, but most of the vaccines that we have are actually viral in nature. And as we all know from talking to our human doctors, antibiotics do not have any effects on viruses.


Tom:              I think you answered this at the very beginning, but I'm wondering if you envision ever winning control over antibiotic resistance.


Brian:             I don't know that anyone really knows that answer. I think that concept of completely reversing antimicrobial resistance, that's probably a stretch. I think the goal for us is to really slow down the progression of antimicrobial resistance. I have a lot of faith in the innovative nature of humans, and I hope that, over time, we're able to develop some new tools that probably don't select for resistance and, eventually, over time, those tools, hopefully, will replace traditional antimicrobials. In large part, I don't know that we'll ever completely lose antibiotics in animal agriculture as long as they're still effective.


Tom:              I'm just curious. I'm wondering what sorts of trends in your field you're watching right now are most exciting.


Brian:             Honestly, I'll go back to what I just said. I think the innovative development of technologies is pretty interesting. There's a lot of research going on, and I'll use the term "alternatives to antibiotics" very loosely, because I think a lot of people think that that's just another chemical compound that we're going to administer to an animal, but I think there are lots of exciting things that are happening.


                        People are looking at microbiome research, which may or may not involve antibiotics at all, but certainly, we're seeing on the human side the potential for that to affect both infectious diseases and non-infectious diseases. I think new diagnostic tools that will help us, certainly from the beef side, make decisions faster about which antimicrobial — if to use an antimicrobial at all — and then, if so, which one particularly would be best suited for that particular situation. I'm really excited about a lot of the new innovation, which also poses some challenges for us. As beef producers, we're probably going to be flooded with new technology and trying to figure out, really, how to efficiently implement the things that will work in our system and politely pass on the things that may not.


Tom:              Dr. Brian Lubbers is director of the clinical microbiology section of the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. Thank you so much.


Brian:             Thank you.


Dr. Brian Lubbers spoke at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE). Click here to learn about ONE and how you can access innovation on demand.