Dr. Nevil Speer and the future of antibiotics in animal ag

Farm Forum

Concerned about the growing debate about what some call the egregious misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture? You should be. The outcome could take the sensible use of important medicines out of your hands. Laws have already been proposed and minds have already been made up. Both of them – the laws and minds – are being settled based on rumor, innuendo and good intentions in an almost fact-free environment.

Dr. Nevil Speer, B.S., M.S., Ph.D., Director of MA Leadership Dynamics Program at Western Kentucky University is chairing a Symposium that might introduce some science into the debate. It’s a project backed by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture called “Bridging the Gap Between Animal Health and Human Health.” This symposium is taking place from November 12-14 at the Kansas City Marriott Hotel.

Speer certainly has the credentials and the contacts to pull it all together. The list of speakers is certainly impressive; people like Symposium Moderator Dr. Richard Raymond, and Dr. Craig Lewis Dr. Mike Apley and Dr. Dave Dargatz. The subjects to be discussed ‘bridge the gap,” too. It will be an important event that can, hopefully, put animal antibiotics in the proper, non-sensationalistic framework.

I contacted Dr. Speer and asked him a few questions about the program.

Q. Dr. Speer, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture is hosting a symposium in Kansas City with the interesting title of “Bridging the Gap Between Animal Health and Human Health. It’s a continuation of an antibiotic symposium in Chicago two years ago and another in Columbus, Ohio last year. What were the accomplishments of those first two symposia?

A. There’ve been a number key take-aways from the first two symposiums. However, those can probably be distilled down to three key ideas:

1. Antimicrobial resistance is an important issue that impacts all of us. Therefore, it’s critical there be no false solutions. Stated another way, policy makers need to rely on science. That is, any oversimplification of the issue – often blaming only agriculture – is a non-starter and actually does a disservice to the general public. Real solutions need to be well-established on science-based criteria.

2. Antimicrobial resistance is not a simple issue. There are any number of complicating factors and interactions. And resistance, in of itself, does not derive simply because of use.

3. Animal, human and environmental health are inherently linked together. As such, any real solution must incorporate a One-Health approach – the need for all segments to work together to ensure comprehensive answers going forward.

Q. Antimicrobial resistance is rapidly becoming a hot topic with scare stories in the major media about super bugs threatening our health. Will speakers at the symposium address those fears?

A. Indeed, that particular issue receives a lot of public attention; in fact, it’s almost become the single issue that the popular media focuses on. That’s regrettable, as the importance of antimicrobial resistance extends far beyond this specific topic. Moreover, it’s also one where human health really comes into play; namely, hospital-acquired and community-derived MRSA’s are large contributors to the overall prevalence in the context of public health. Therefore, animal agriculture gets a bad rap when it becomes the culprit for all MRSA cases in the broader media. That issue will be addressed directly by Dr. Paul Fey, Professor and Medical Director of Clinical Microbiology Laboratory, University of Nebraska Medical Center. His presentation is entitled, “Livestock-associated Staphylococcus aureus: Recent Trends.” The talk will tackle the complexities around the issue and provide an objective overview around some of the misrepresentations within the media.

Q. There is, of course, a difference in the kinds of antibiotics used in animal agriculture vs. those used for humans. Who will be speaking about that issue?

A. That perhaps is one of the largest aspects of misunderstanding within this entire public discussion, with maybe the exception of the 80 percnt talking point that often gets batted around. Indeed, there are some very key differences that need to be addressed.

Dr. Richard Raymond will address that all-important topic with a presentation, “Antibiotics Used In Animals Raise for Food.” Dr. Raymond is a former USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety, Former Chief Medical Officer for Nebraska Health and Human Services System and a former family practitioner with 27 years of experience.

Dr. Craig Lewis and Dr. Dave Dargatz will be providing data on use of antimicrobials in animals, specifically. Lastly, Dr. Mike Apley will provide an important overview of resistance in veterinary medicine and human medicine, respectively.

Q. There are bills being discussed in Washington to control the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and the USDA is considering some initiatives. Will there be some representatives from inside the beltway who will talk about the potential rules and regs that might come about in the near future?

A. That particular issue is being addressed indirectly, albeit comprehensively, with several speakers from outside the Beltway including Dr. Paul Halverson, Indiana/Purdue School of Public Health and Dr. Terry Dwelle, State Health Officer, North Dakota Department of Health. They’ll be addressing the realities of antimicrobial resistance from a human health perspective.

Dr. Robert Tauxe, Deputy Director, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, Center for Disease Control will also be presenting. In conjunction, these three speakers should provide some good overview to help shape future policies and initiatives.

Q. Consumer attitudes about antibiotic use will help define the direction of any changes in the way we use antibiotics for animals as well as humans. Are those attitudes being considered during the symposium?

A. This, too, is one of the key highlights of the symposium. Several sessions will revolve around consumer attitudes about antibiotics and the food system in general. The focus is intended to provide very comprehensive and meaningful insight into what consumers are thinking – that’ll be provided with some fresh survey data that’s being compiled right now. Additionally, there’ll also be a fresh look from the commercial aspect of this issue. That is, how are changing consumer attitudes influencing the business environment – what does that mean for the livestock / meat business going forward?

Q. “Bridging the Gap” indicates an ominous choice. Does actively protecting animal health mean endangering human health? Can both co-exist?

A. That brings us back to the first question. “Bridging the Gap” is intended to indicate the general lack of awareness about this all-important issue: antibiotic resistance. Too often, though, it’s portrayed as one side vs. the other; human vs. veterinary medicine, or people vs. livestock. That’s unfortunate because it’s an issue we all need to address.

Any simplistic solution that doesn’t assume a one health perspective really is a non- or false-solution. Therefore, “Bridging the Gap” is intended to portray that we can be pro-active in advancing real solutions that benefit both animal health and human health.