Whenever I talk to anyone who works in the animal health industry who says that they are working on an antibiotic alternative, one of the first questions I ask is: what does it do on the production side?
The use of antibiotics in the livestock industry is well-known. However, the reason behind the large volume of antibiotics consumed by the industry is not talked about. Over the last several decades, producers have used antibiotics, such as Monensin, for growth promotion in livestock. Antibiotics have been added to animal feed in subclinical doses, to promote weight gain in livestock. By sub-clinical I mean that the doses given are not effective in managing disease. This practice was primarily used in cattle, but also in hog and poultry. As the global population has skyrocketed, and people’s food tastes have changed, the demand for meat has risen as well. This was economical for producers as it meant they could yield more meat, at a lower cost, because these antibiotics were cheap and easy to manufacture as opposed to more costly feed inputs or longer times to market.
As we learned more about the effects of antibiotics, especially within the area of antibiotic resistance and how the use of antibiotics in the animals that we eat can lead to antibiotic resistance in humans, there has been a call for stopping the use of antibiotics in livestock. In 2014, Health Canada announced that they were restricting the use of antibiotics in livestock to specific treatment of disease. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. passed similar regulation. Back in October, California Governor Jerry Brown passed a law banning the use of antibiotics in animals for weight gain promotion, as well as banning the use of all antibiotics found in human medicine, by 2018.
Consumers have the option to buy meat at the grocery store, all with different claims as to whether the animals were given any antibiotics in their lifetime. However, some of these labels may only mean that the livestock from which their meat came from did not receive sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics for growth promotion. They could very well have been treated with antibiotics had they been exposed to disease and bacterial infections at some point though, or possibly when they were born to help support their immature immune systems (to supplement the passive immunity normally acquired through mothers milk).
Initial studies in the 1960s had shown that the antibiotics made the animals gain weight, on average, by 6 per cent. This is a significant margin for producers, and over the years they have come to rely on it as a foundational piece for their production economics. Now that this use is starting to be phased out, producers are now faced with a challenge: their production economics will change, unless they find a suitable alternative for growth promotion. This new alternative cannot be antibiotics, and therefore has to be an entirely new class of growth promoters. So far, no one has succeeded at filling the gap.
Possible technologies that have come forward have been anything from probiotics, to using bacterial cultures, to using a wide variety of natural extracts, substances, to using genetically modified bacteria, to chemical compounds – the broad spectrum of available molecules. This is an industry pain point that presents a tremendous opportunity for inventors and researchers.
Growth promotion is not usually talked about on the consumer side, but for producers, this is a major concern, and therein lies a huge market for potential alternatives. This is also problematic for animal health technology companies and antibiotic manufacturers that will lose major revenue when the antibiotics are phased out.
Most of all, this presents a big opportunity to appeal to consumers. As the general public is making more conscious food choices, they are turning more towards meat that is raised in better conditions, with labels such as grass-fed, or free-range, for example. Currently, the only meat that is available on the market that is guaranteed not to have had any exposure to antibiotics are those that are labelled organic, which can come at a premium price. If this new growth promoter alternative also happens to be all-natural, hormone-free, non-GMO, or a different type of product that is perfectly healthy for the consumer to eat, this could also be a much more appealing solution to the consumer and therefore make for a better bottom-line for producers.
Many producers have already started phasing out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters on their own, but the clock is ticking for a new solution to present itself.