Scientists advise restrained use of veterinary medicinal products

The development and spread of antibiotic resistances of microorganisms and the impact of the use of antibiotic substances were the main topics at an international symposium staged by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin on 10 and 11 November 2003. This was already the fourth symposium at this institute on a subject which is considered to be a serious problem all over the world. The then Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine had already looked examined the problem of resistance in 1995, 1997 and 2002. BfR considers the ban on the use of antibiotic growth promoters in the European Union from 2006 onwards to be the fruit of these efforts and the first step towards controlling resistances. “But we have by no means achieved our goal“, commented Professor Andreas Hensel, the President of the Federal Institute. “If we want to preserve the efficacy of our antibiotics in the long term for the health protection of consumers, then we must further reduce the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry“. Particularly when it came to the treatment of entire herds in which only individual animals were sick, the scientists felt that improvement of husbandry conditions, consistent hygiene and the increased use of vaccines were viable alternatives to the use of antibiotics.

The symposium, attended by around 200 scientists from 16 countries, was organised on the initiative of the Federal Ministry for Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture with the support of the Federal Agency for Consumer Protection and Food Safety and the Federal Agricultural Research Centre. The participants included several representatives of international organizations like the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Office International des Epizooties (OIE). BfR will incorporate the results from this symposium into its assessment of risks resulting from the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals. Risk assessment is the foundation for recommendations of action to be taken which BfR will pass on to the people responsible for risk reduction management. The recommendations are to serve as the basis for a follow-up seminar to be staged by the Federal Agency for Consumer Protection and Food Safety next year.

Since the introduction of antibiotics for the treatment of bacterial diseases in humans and animals, there have always been bacteria which survive these “attacks” and acquire resistance. In practice this was not a problem as long as the resistance was recognised early on and a sufficient number of other effective substances were available to treat the diseases. However, since antibiotics have been applied on a wide scale in humans and the number of bacteria, which are resistant at the same time to several antibiotics, has been increasing around the world, the situation is now different. There are no new effective agents on the horizon and there have already been some fatalities as a consequence of treatment failure in patients. Against this backdrop each use of antibiotic substances must undergo a careful weighing up of the risks and benefits irrespective of whether they are to be administered to humans or animals.

It was not possible to put a number to the influence which the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals in Germany has on the development of resistance at the latest BfR symposium either. Nevertheless, no-one was in any doubt that resistances can be transmitted to humans via products and foods of animal origin. BfR has repeatedly pointed out the increased resistance to antibiotics used in animals and humans, most recently in April of this year in a press release on the results of a research project (BfR press release 08/2003). In that release the Federal Institute expressly issued a warning about the increased insensitivity of microorganisms to the antiobiotic sub-class of (fluor)chinolones.

For precautionary reasons the participants in the symposium advocated taking every conceivable step to reduce the risk of resistance development. Here the focus was on cutting back the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry and veterinary medicine. The participants expressly pointed out that this recommendation does not apply to treatment. Just like every human being, every animal has a right to treatment. The scientists' criticisms were directed far more at the so-called “metaphylactic“ use of antibiotics involving the “treatment“ of an entire herd or flock after individual animals had become sick. Because the dosage in this type of treatment varies considerably and individual animals only receive sub-optimum amounts of the antibiotic, this can encourage the development of resistances. The Scandinavians have proved that there is great potential for cutbacks in this area. They were able to markedly reduce the use of antibiotics in pig fattening and provide evidence of a decline in resistance without the number of sick animals increasing.

More detailed information on this subject can be accessed on the BfR homepage ( under Food/Food Safety/Microbial risks or using the search keyword "Resistance".

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