A November conference in Kansas City, titled “Bridging the Gap between Animal Health and Human Health,” helped advance a dialogue between animal agriculture, human medicine, public health and consumer groups on the issue of antibiotic resistance. It was clear, though, that the dialogue will need to accelerate before we can expect consensus or progress toward resolving the issue of how antibiotics should or should not be used in animal agriculture.

The conference, hosted by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), featured an impressive array of speakers including medical doctors, veterinarians, scientists, retailers and representatives of consumer-advocacy groups and meat companies. Individual speakers outlined the science behind antibiotic resistance, government and industry efforts to monitor trends, regulatory measures and consumer perceptions of the issue.

Misinformation abounds and not just on one side. Richard Raymond, MD, former USDA undersecretary for food safety and director of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, moderated the discussions and noted common but misleading statements from each side of the issue. Critics of agriculture regularly state that livestock account for 80 percent of all antibiotic use in the United States. Supporters of animal agriculture, on the other hand, use the argument that all antibiotic use in livestock is under the control and direction of veterinarians. Raymond said both statements are misleading and untrue, and he believes we need to move the discussion away from extreme, polarizing positions and toward more honest, open dialogue.

Discussions throughout the conference illustrated the complexity of the issue. The biological processes through which resistance emerges are not fully understood. People with differing perspectives can draw opposite conclusions from the same data, and for consumers, attitudes regarding food safety and medical care are driven more by emotion than by science.

One disappointment was that most of the representatives of the human medical community, who presented on the first day, left the conference soon after their presentations. It was understandable, as the presenters all held high-level positions within the CDC, state health departments or academia, and their schedules precluded committing to a full three-day conference. However, the goals of the conference would have benefited from full participation of all stakeholder groups.

But during the time available, the conversation among representatives of agriculture, human medicine, public health and consumer interests was generally constructive. Discussions in the hallways and at the podium indicated a next logical step could be to convene a working group, including representatives of all stakeholder groups, for a series of shorter one-day “summit” meetings to work toward consensus on solutions.

In any case, this issue is not going away, and in the long run, business as usual will not be an option for animal agriculture. Pending FDA guidance will shift the industry toward more limited antibiotic use, and even then, pressure from consumer groups will continue, forcing veterinarians and producers to learn to manage livestock without some of the tools currently available.

For more detailed coverage of the NIAA conference, read “Antibiotic resistance — can we bridge the gap?” on page 20 of this issue.