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Alternatives to Antibiotics to Keep Food Animals Healthy

Posted by Dr. Steven Kappes, USDA One Health Joint Working Group Co-Chair and Deputy Administrator, Animal Production and Protection, USDA Agricultural Research Service in Animals Plants
Nov 18, 2015
ARS scientists identifying bacterial pathogens in the lab
ARS scientists identifying bacterial pathogens in the lab. Photo by Peggy Greb.

Antibiotics are lifesavers. We depend on them to treat bacterial infections and diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis and strep throat, as well as ear infections and infected wounds. In response to U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidance, veterinarians and producers are moving toward more judicious antibiotic use in food animals, while keeping them healthy and ensuring that our food supply remains safe.

This is especially important because certain bacterial strains have become resistant to some of the current antibiotics used to treat infections in humans and animals, escalating the need worldwide to find and develop alternatives to antibiotics.

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is developing new technologies to address antibiotic resistance and reduce the use of antibiotics through agricultural management, which includes food, animals, crops and the environment—water, soil and climate. This research falls into USDA’s One Health approach when mitigating the problems associated with antibiotic resistance.  One Health is the concept that the health of animals, the health of people, and the viability of ecosystems are intricately linked.

A One Health approach embraces the idea that a disease problem impacting the health of humans, animals, and the environment can only be solved through improved communication, cooperation, and collaboration across disciplines and institutions. With its partners, USDA’s objective through this multidisciplinary approach is to preserve, maintain or reduce health risks to animals, humans, the environment and society. USDA has gained in-depth knowledge about antimicrobial resistance through its work on the agricultural environment, animal health and food safety.

Over the years, scientists have developed and patented new technologies that could help reduce the use of antibiotics. Discoveries include using natural supplements like vitamin D to treat a condition of dairy cows called “mastitis,” which affects milk quality and production of cattle. Vitamin D, as well as yeast, also has the potential to treat turkey diseases.

In addition, scientists have shown that non-antibiotic methods, such as essential oils in citrus, reduce foodborne pathogens found in the gut of animals; that phytochemicals—natural chemicals found in such plants as safflower, plums and peppers—enhance the immune system of chickens; and that certain natural compounds kill foodborne pathogens like Salmonella or Escherichia coli O157:H7. Other research breakthroughs include creating new, effective antimicrobials and vaccines to fight such pathogens as Salmonella and Campylobacter to lower their incidence in chickens and turkeys and help keep consumers healthy.

Finding alternatives to antibiotics has become a global issue as the demand for animal food products increases to meet the nutritional needs of a growing population. ARS scientists continue to seek solutions by developing new methods to control and prevent animal diseases and reduce bacterial pathogens in our food supply.

Fruits and vegetables laid out on a table
ARS scientists are studying a variety of techniques to ensure our food supply remains safe. Photo by Peggy Greb.
Category/Topic: Animals Plants