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There are compelling scientific arguments to reduce antibiotic usage.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Survey on Antibiotic Usage in Livestock and Alternatives

Antibiotic usage is debated in two divergent groups, scientists and the public. In contrast the farming and feed producing sector is asked less frequently. This survey aimed to catch a glimpse of what people know and feel about antibiotic use in livestock and where it should go. 240 participants took the time to answer 9 question which lead to a wide range of views. Despite the differences of opinion, the participants showed a high consistency in their answers.

Why Yet Another Antibiotic Survey?

In November 2016 Kemin ran an online survey on antibiotics in livestock. While there are many studies undertaken on use, trends and the science of antibiotic use, less concern is usually given to attitudes or concerns rather than focusing on factual knowledge of antibiotic use. Certainly such attitudes can be strongly influenced by news and the media, therefore the window to answer was kept intentionally short, the survey closed after six days.

The Participants and Questions

240 Study participants were recruited online to answer a total of 9 questions. Participants came from at least 42 countries, with an average of 4.5 replies per country. The majority came from agriculture/natural science background (89,0%), the rest did either not specify or did not answer (1,2%) or was from other professional backgrounds (9,8%). Age of the participants ranged from 20 to 68, with 46-50 (17%) and 51-55 (18%) being the most represented age groups.

The exact questions asked were as follows:

  • What is your age?
  • What is your profession?
  • What are antibiotics currently used for in the European Union in livestock (check all that apply) (multiple choice)
  • Is antibiotic usage in livestock (multiple choice)
  • Is it possible to commercially rear all broilers without antibiotics? (multiple choice)
  • Is it possible to commercially rear all turkeys without antibiotics? (multiple choice)
  • Rank the following alternatives to antibiotics from most promising alternative (1) to least promising alternative (4) (ranking tool)
  • Are you concerned about antibiotic usage in livestock, why or why not? (text field)
  • Should antibiotics be allowed for use in livestock? (multiple choice)
  • Should antibiotics be allowed for use in cats and dogs? (multiple choice)
  • Are you concerned about livestock welfare if antibiotics were totally banned? (text field)
  • Additionally, metadata such as geographic location, time of replying and completion rate were collected alongside the questions. All except question #5 allowed for multiple answers, therefore totals can exceed 100%. Questions that had remained unanswered, in otherwise filled questionnaires, were added to the “do not know” option in the final calculations.

The Results at a Glance

According to the participants’ antibiotic usage is decreasing or decreasing fast, which mirrors what the statistics say. However, 16% saw antibiotic usage as increasing, and 5% even saw it increasing fast.

There are compelling scientific arguments to reduce antibiotic usage, particularly those also used in human medicine. One question rarely asked, however, is if it is even possible to produce livestock entirely without antibiotics. In order to provoke very clear answers, the question was not whether reduction is possible (compare question 3 & 4). In contrast, it was whether it is possible to rear broiler and poultry completely without antibiotics.

One noticeable trend was that broiler production without antibiotics was seen as more feasible than turkey production. The other trend revealed was that those who presumably know very well, veterinarians, provided most of the explicit “no” answers. A percentage could not be calculated for this as some veterinarians choose not disclose their profession under “profession“, while others did so in the text answers and there are presumably more who did not explicitly mention their trained profession.

When asked what the best alternatives to antibiotics were, opinions diverged strongly. Only a slight trend ranking probiotics over acidifiers, followed by essential oils and finally prebiotics could be observed. When asked to name other alternatives, combinations were mentioned 18x, but also no medication was listed as a possible alternative to antibiotic use.

When asked whether the participants were concerned about antibiotic use in livestock a large majority of 94% answered in the affirmative. Reoccurring themes were resistance, incorrect usage of antibiotics but also still concerns about residues and those hazards to human health.

The final question challenged the participants to consider their view on animal welfare if antibiotics were banned immediately. Several participants commented that an immediate ban was impossible and therefore they were unconcerned. Keeping this in mind overall 87% were concerned, while 11% were not.

Several participants commented along the lines of, why are you asking about animal welfare, surely food security is more important?