Much like when his children get sick, when one of Brian Shuter’s cows fall ill to a bacterial infection, he seeks out the best antibiotics to get them well.

“When your animals are sick, you need to give them help,” said the manager of Shuter Sunset Farms in Frankton.

When you’re dealing with more than 100 head of cattle on a daily basis and hundreds of hogs, an illness in one animal can quickly infect the entire herd.

But while animal health is top of mind for the cattleman, he’s also sure to make sure any time his animals receive an antibiotic it’s both necessary and effective.

For Shuter, it’s simple economics – medicine is expensive.

“With the expense, you don’t want to use any more than you have to – because it’s so expensive,” he said. “Nobody I know is giving antibiotics when they don’t have to.”

But while it’s a matter of money for Shuter, the FDA is cheering a recent study that showed antibiotic use in animals declined by 33 percent between 2016 and 2017 because the findings indicate human consumers of animal products are less likely to be exposed to antibiotic-resistant super bugs.

According to the annual “Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals” report, antibiotic use fell drastically in the first year of Barack Obama-era rules seeking to restrict the unnecessary use of the drugs.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement accompanying the report that the decline suggested efforts by the agency to reduce improper use of the drugs were paying off.

“While it’s impossible to completely outrace antimicrobial resistance, we can take important steps now to slow its pace and reduce its impact on both human and animal health,” Gottlieb said.

The cause for concern is clear: repeated use of antibiotics makes bacteria, fungi viruses and parasites stronger – culling weak specimens and leaving only those that can’t be killed off by medicine.

And while this happens in humans who overuse or improperly take antibiotics, previous practices like adding medicine to feed for all animals – sick or otherwise – greatly increase the growth of so-called “super bugs,” which pass not only from animal to animal but can also end up in finished products and sicken humans.

When animals are slaughtered and processed for food, the bacteria from the animal can contaminate meat or other products. Bacteria also can spread from animal feces to the environment, either when used as fertilizer or when waste storage tanks rupture or overflow, which can then contaminate soil and water used to grow fruits and vegetables.

Regulation working

In the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die annually as a direct result of these infections, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

While it’s unfeasible to expect antibiotic use to drop to zero, Gottlieb released a plan last year to curb two of the most dangerous uses of antibiotics: blanket prevention and micro-doses used not to prevent disease but to cause animals to gain weight faster.

And the report indicates just how effective regulation can be in just one year.

Sales of “medically important” antibiotics, which are identical to those used in humans, and therefore most likely to harm people, fell by 33 percent. More drastically, sales of antibiotics specifically for growth promotion dropped from 12.7 million pounds to zero, according to the report.

And along with regulatory efforts, decisions by some of the largest customers of American beef, dairy and poultry announced plans in December to take reduction into their own hands.

Costco Wholesale announced a plan to restrict antibiotic use purely to therapeutic use, meaning only once an animal is sick and not as a preventative or growth promoter, by 2020. McDonald’s also announced a program to reduce antibiotic use in beef purchased for the company.

And on the same day the FDA report was released, a group of food producers and consumer companies signed on to a 15-point antibiotic stewardship program organized by the Pew Charitable Trust seeking to drastically reduce non-therapeutic uses.

Companies signing onto the agreement included some of the country’s largest purchasers and producers including: Hormel Foods, McDonald’s Corp., National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Board, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation, Smithfield Foods Inc., Tyson Foods and Walmart Inc.

“The organizations who were part of this dialogue represent the food animal supply chain from farm to table, and they recognize the need for meaningful stewardship programs that everyone can understand and trust,” said Kathy Talkington, who directs Pew’s antibiotic resistance project.

And while the agreement is only a loose framework currently, Talkington added she expects talks will continue to keep consumers safe from deadly diseases.

“We look forward to continuing to work together to align these stewardship best practices with existing quality and sustainability programs throughout animal production,” Talkington said.