The biggest issue of antibiotic stewardship could be that animal producers are overusing their last line of defense, suggests Mike Apley, veterinarian, and professor of production medicine and clinical pharmacology at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Consider this: The last new antibiotic group released and approved for human or animal use – and we now use a member of that group in food animals – was in 1978, Apley said. Everything since then has just undergone chemical modification. Those modifications may help for a short time, but eventually, they lose their effectiveness.

“Bacteria are like opossums; they live stupid and have a lot of offspring,” Apley said. “It’s not that the bacteria outsmart us, but it’s that there are so many offspring with so many different mutations that the ones that can survive multiply, and we have a new, adapted population. So we create new versions of the same antibiotics that outrun them for a while, and then they genetically select to overcome them.”

He explained there is a tendency to use antibiotics as a management tool, but when that practice becomes routine, the price can be a loss in effectiveness of that antibiotic when it’s needed to actually treat an animal.

“For producers and veterinarians, antibiotic resistance isn’t just about whether we do or don’t affect human antibiotic resistance,” Apley said. “It’s about preserving these valuable tools for our use 10 to 20 years down the road. We have to be good stewards of them, and that means doing everything we possibly can to make sure we don’t have to use them.”

Apley says in some cases antibiotics are required for disease control, but he encourages producers to work with their veterinarians and to try other preventative measures such as vaccines, biosecurity, animal flow, environmental management, culling and diagnostic testing as first lines of defense to control disease, hopefully lowering the use of antibiotics.

“Having to use an antibiotic for disease prevention or control means we failed at everything else we can do to prevent that disease,” he said. “They can be valuable tools, and in some cases, they are definitely needed regardless of our best efforts. But, in some cases, our best efforts can prevent their use.”