What's your contribution to antibiotic reduction?

Anne Oberdorf

8 minutes | 26. February 2020
Degree of technical knowledge

Antibiotic reduction in livestock – The time is ripe for alternatives

“How dare you!” – this call not only refers to climate sinners, but also to the fight against antibiotic sinners.

It is estimated that every year around 700.000 people worldwide die due to infections with drug-resistant bacteria.

Isnt’ it time to talk about antibiotic reduction in livestock?

The reasons for the increase of antibiotic resistance are manifold: lack of hygiene, insufficient education, the precautionary use of antibiotics in animal husbandry, political hesitation. And the number of multi-resistant bacteria is rising.

Scientists, including Prof. Dr. Otto Cars of the Swedish Uppsala University, warn of a catastrophe “greater than climate change”.

How can antibiotic reduction in livestock contribute to a better and healthier world?

How do antibiotic resistances develop?

How does animal husbandry contribute and what alternatives are there to maintain animals’ health? Although antibiotics cannot yet be completely replaced in animal husbandry, phytogenics can make a valuable contribution to maintaining animal welfare and health. Discover more in this article.

Antibiotics should only be used sparingly and purposefully in order to maintain their “lifespan”, i.e. their efficacy, for as long as possible. The frequent administration of antibiotics in human and animals increases the risk of the formation of resistant bacteria.

But how do antibiotic resistances develop?

Many bacteria have the natural ability to protect themselves against antibiotics produced by other microorganisms (such as e.g. fungi or other bacteria). Thus, antibiotic resistances occur completely naturally in the environment. They develop by natural mutations in the bacterial genome or by the uptake of resistance genes from the environment, which bacteria exchange with each other and pass on thereby. Bacteria can take up several resistance genes, which protect them from various antibiotics. Thus, bacterial pathogens with multiple antibiotic resistances can develop. Especially in industrial animal husbandry, the conditions for this are ideal: Due to the confinement in which many animals stand close to each other, and partly inadequate disinfection measures, germs can spread rapidly, which favors the development of bacterial resistance.


Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can reach us in a variety of ways.

No one is safe from them – not even you. Whether at the vegetable counter, at the meat counter or at the door handle, they can lurk everywhere. Through unclean processing in slaughterhouses or cutting plants of the meat industry, resistant germs can be transferred from the animals intestines on the meat and remain there until the end product. Remember therefore to rinse the knife and cutting board on which you cut your meat sufficiently after use, to heat the meat sufficiently and to wash your hands properly after preparation so that resistant germs do not pose a health threat to you. But not only the meat-eaters among us are endangered – also vegans or vegetarians: Resistant germs have also been found on vegetables. Here, too, animal husbandry has an influence: Bacteria can reach the fields through the exhaust air from fattening stables or with the spreading of liquid manure. Due to drift, they can be found miles away from the stables.

Antibiotic reduction in livestock – The time is ripe for a change

Europe already has a number of activities to educate and inform about the risks of inappropriate use of antibiotics. Among them was the symposium on the 12th Antibiotics Day, hosted by AGES (Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety Ltd.) in Vienna and attended by my colleague Dr. Elisabeth Rohrer and myself, Anne Oberdorf. The aim of the symposium, held on the European Antibiotics Day with numerous experts from human and veterinary medicine, was to raise awareness of the threat to public health posed by antibiotic resistance and to inform about the prudent use of antibiotics.

Globally, the need for a more responsible use of antibiotics can be demonstrated from completely different perspectives: In Western nations, life expectancy continues to increase, and with it the number of elderly, immunocompromised and hospitalized people. These people are more susceptible to chronic infections, many of which are caused by “MRSA” the infamous Staphylococcus aureus with multiple antibiotic resistances. Without effective antibiotics, these people cannot be helped, and the number of deaths from resistance continues to rise.

As little as possible – as much as needed

While the demand for healthy, residue-free and safe food is growing in industrialized countries, there is a strong increase in the demand for animal derived proteins in developing countries, which is also promoting the increasingly frequent use of antibiotics– and thus the increased risk of bacterial resistance development. From a global perspective, however, developing countries and industrial nations share one challenge: curbing the development of multi-resistant germs and protecting consumer health (Givskov, 2012).

There is an enormous demand for antibiotic alternatives, as the market increasingly demands animal protein, which is produced without antibiotic growth promoters and thus reducing the risk of increased resistance.

This is where phytogenics come into play:

The broad spectrum of phytogenic active substances, such as bitter substances, essential oils, saponins, flavonoids, mucilaginous substances and tannins, which are derived from herbs, spices, other plants and their extracts offers amazing beneficial properties.

© Delacon

Phytogenics can support to maintain intestinal health and improve animal performance by increasing feed intake and stimulating digestive processes.

In addition, some phytogenic active ingredients have the ability to inhibit quorum sensing – the communication of bacteria – which can help to reduce the pathogenicity of several bacteria. Phytogenic feed additives can thus contribute to antibiotic reduction in livestock.

In general, the aim is to reduce the overall use of pharmaceuticals in livestock by supporting the maintenance of animal health – phytogenics can play an important role here.

@ Gettyimages
© Gettyimages

However, antibiotics cannot be completely replaced in livestock farming for the treatment of bacterial infections – that is why it is so important to strive for a responsible use of antibiotics, to support the health of the livestock from the beginning and thus to keep the increasing threat of resistance as low as possible.

Did you know?

Antibiotic resistance is when germs (like bacteria) develop the ability to defeat the antibiotics designed to kill them. It does not mean your body is resistant to antibiotics.

Why and how do antibiotics become an ineffective miracle weapon in the long term, and how can this be avoided? Learn more in our Q&A:

Antibiotic resistance - what is it and what causes it?

The word antibiotic comes from the Greek anti “against” and bios “life”. Antibiotics are, in the original sense, naturally formed metabolic products of fungi or bacteria, which, even in low concentrations, are able to inhibit the growth of other microorganisms or kill them. It is important to mention that although antibiotics can be used to treat bacterial infections in human and veterinary medicine, they are not effective against viruses.

In order to protect themselves, microorganisms such as bacteria are able to develop resistance to antibiotics. This means that the antibiotic loses its efficacy against the bacterium. Since bacteria multiply very quickly and are sometimes very adaptable, spontaneous mutations can occur in their genetic material – resulting in development of resistance genes to the antibiotic. This creates a selection pressure: strains of bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic survive and can continue to multiply and spread.

If antibiotics are used too often, improperly or over a long a period of time, this can promote the development and spread of resistant bacteria. Therefore, antibiotics should only ever be used specifically to treat bacterial infections.

There is therefore a high risk of antibiotic resistance if…

… antibiotics are used too often or

… Antibiotics are not used correctly, e.g. in too low a dose or too short a time

What happens when antibiotics no longer work?

Whether pneumonia, tetanus, purulent wounds or operations in general – thanks to antibiotics, bacterial infections have lost their horror. However, we should not be too careless with the use of antibiotics – the formation of resistant germs through improper or uncritical use of antibiotics in animals and humans is on the rise. The consequence: bacterial infections, which were previously easy to treat with antibiotics, can now become a death trap. Without effective antibiotics, even a simple infection can become life-threatening. Thereby, resistant or multi-resistant germs are not more aggressive than those that react sensitively to antibiotics – but they are much more difficult or even impossible to combat.

Most pathogenic bacteria pose no problem for healthy people. However, immunocompromised persons, elderly people or premature babies are exposed at much higher risk, as their immune system is not capable to deal even with relatively harmless pathogens. The same applies to animal husbandry: animals with a weakened or immature immune system are more susceptible to bacterial infections. Particularly when it comes to resistant or multi-resistant pathogens, treatment becomes a challenge with a long and difficult healing process – and unfortunately often ends deadly.

The consequences of antibiotic resistance include…

o Infections last longer and/or

o Infections are more difficult to treat

o For some infections there are hardly any effective antibiotics left

o Hospital stays become longer and more frequent

How does animal husbandry contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance?

In modern agriculture, healthy animals are often given antibiotics in-feed or water as a precautionary measure. This is intended to prevent the animal from becoming infected when their stable mates become ill. Moreover, antibiotics are often routinely used as growth promoters (long-term prophylactic use of antibiotics in subtherapeutic doses) in animal nutrition. The problem that arises with this “mass use” is the following: The more frequently antibiotics are administered in subtherapeutic doses, the greater the risk that bacterial strains become resistant to them. If these bacteria then cause an infection, the corresponding antibiotics for treatment remain ineffective.

However, the use of antibiotics for animal fattening is officially prohibited in the European Union. Antibiotics as growth promoters are currently completely banned in the EU and in South Korea. In Australia, Mexico and New Zealand, the feeding of some, but not all antibiotics is prohibited. However, numerous countries, including the USA and Canada, are tightening up the regulations on the use of in-feed antibiotics with the aim of ensuring that antibiotic resistance does not jeopardise the cure of human bacterial diseases.

Do antibiotic resistances, which arise in livestock farming, pose a threat to our health?

Previously published studies indicate that resistant germs are more frequently found in food-producing animals fed antibiotics (Burow et al., 2014; Simoneit et al., 2015). For example, a resistant bacterium that colonises the mucous membranes of pigs and turkeys has often been detected. Although this bacterium does not cause disease, studies suggest that transmission to humans is possible. One study [in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases in August 2013] estimated that more than 1500 annual deaths in the European Union are directly related to antibiotic use in poultry. Another example is the well documented risk of transmission of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) from livestock to farmers, vets and others in close contact to the animals, which can result in severe infections (Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 2015).

It can therefore be assumed that people who are in close contact with farm animals (e.g. farmers or veterinarians) could be colonized with resistant bacteria more frequently than people who are not in close contact with animals (Idelevich et al., 2009; BfR, 2009; Liu et al., 2015). Whether the use of antibiotics in agricultural animal husbandry could actually directly harm human health is, however, not sufficiently researched at present. It should also be noted that the transfer of a bacterium from animals to humans, which carries a resistance gene, can also make the remaining bacteria resistant through horizontal gene transfer.However, antibiotics are a valuable tool for farmers and veterinarians when used sensibly, because pigs, turkeys and co. also need to be treated if a bacterial infection is present. However, the aim should always be to keep animals healthy. The use of antibiotics should therefore be the exception rather than the rule.

I have the flu - should I take antibiotics?

Antibiotics are (prescriptive) drugs that prevent the growth of bacteria or kill them. However, if the infection is caused by viruses antibiotics are ineffective. Since influenza is always caused by viruses, taking antibiotics is not having any effects on the course of disease. It is best to inform your family doctor about this.

What are reserve antibiotics?

Reserve antibiotics are antibiotics that should only be used in human medicine. Reserve antibiotics are used for patients in whom common antibiotics are no longer effective.

In human medicine, about 90% of antibiotics are administered on an outpatient basis, and about 10% in hospitals (Robert Koch Institute, 2013). If a person has become infected with a bacterial infection and it is determined that the bacterial pathogens are resistant to the antibiotics, reserve antibiotics come into play. These are administered in hospitals to kill these bacteria and cure the person.

Are reserve antibiotics used in animal husbandry?

Unfortunately yes. It is still a problem that reserve antibiotics such as fluoroquinolones, third- or fourth-generation cephalosporins or ionophores are used in poultry and livestock. Although the use of normal antibiotics is declining in most European countries due to growing criticism from consumers and politicians, the use of reserve antibiotics has increased slightly.

What are your experiences with phytogenics?

Tell us in the comments