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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Can Probiotics Replace Antibiotics on the Farm?

By Mary Mazzoni

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, sales of antimicrobial medication approved for use in food-producing animals rose by 22 percent from 2009 through 2014. As the use of antibiotics on farm animals increases, physicians and health experts began to warn of the dangers of antimicrobial resistance. And those calls are only getting louder.

According to a 2014 assessment from the World Health Organization: "Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) threatens the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi ... A post-antibiotic era – in which common infections and minor injuries can kill – far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century."

As Kaleigh Rogers, a staff writer at Motherboard, said on Wednesday at SXSW Eco: "That’s about as dramatic as the World Health Organization gets, which means we really need action."

Fortunately, thanks to growing consumer awareness and demand, food companies are responding in kind. The past two years saw a deluge of companies pledging to eliminate unnecessary antibiotics from their meat supply chains. Forward-thinking firms like Chipotle and Panera Bread are already virtually antibiotic-free, and other big-name brands -- such as Tyson Foods, McDonald's, Wendy's and Costco -- pledged to make the switch over the next few years.

As a massive number of companies make antibiotic-free pledges in response to consumer pressure, supply becomes a serious issue. When six of the largest U.S. school districts tried to switch to antibiotic-free poultry in 2014, chicken sellers like Tyson Foods said they could not change their production systems quickly enough to meet the demand, Reuters reported last year.

But an unexpected tool could help farmers reduce their use of unnecessary antimicrobials while keeping growth and nutrition consistent: probiotics. And no, we're not talking about yogurt for chickens.

"When you’re talking about animal health and animal production, probiotics can be good for several reasons," Michelle Kromm, chief veterinarian for turkey producer Jennie-O Turkey Store, said at SXSW Eco. "On the efficiency side of things, we can find bacteria that could take less corn and soy feed to get the same amount of either weight gain or egg production. We can also use probiotics to combat the opportunity for food safety pathogens, such as salmonella, to colonize animals."

At the start of this year, Adisseo and Novozymes -- two global leaders in the animal nutrition and feed additive industry -- launched a probiotic for poultry on the U.S. market, as well as in a number of countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Developed from a naturally-occurring bacterium found in soil, the probiotic can optimize feed conversion by 2 to 2.5 percent. That may not sound like much, but when you're talking about farms with hundreds of thousands of birds, that can mean big savings for farmers  - and healthier birds. This product and others like it can also help farmers regulate their birds' gut health, which promotes overall health and reduces the need for therapeutic antimicrobials.

We sat down with Derrick Lewis, senior manager of animal health and nutrition and industrial microbiology for Novozymes, after the panel. In this quick-fire interview, we find out more about the company's new probiotic and how it can address antimicrobial resistance.

TriplePundit: How long has Novozymes been working on probiotics for farm animals?

Derrick Lewis: We launched our first product earlier this year, so we’ve been working in the field for a number of years now. But it’s still fairly new for Novozymes. We worked in the animal nutrition space for a number of years selling our feed enzymes, so this is the next step in overall animal health and nutrition.

3p: And your probiotic products are best suited for larger farms?

DL: That’s where we can make the most impact, so it’s really the economy of scale.

3p: Can you speak to some of the benefits of employing probiotics on the farm, both for animal health and also for human health with respect to antimicrobial resistance?

DL: Our goal is not to push for antibiotic removal. We see consumers making that demand. We see companies removing antibiotics from their production setups today. And what we’re trying to do is think of sustainable ways to make up for that performance dip that they’re going to see when they remove those antibiotics. If we can have a sustainable, natural product that can improve feed efficiency, that’s going to be a benefit.

3p: So, when you say feed efficiency, you mean using less feed to get the same nutritional benefit for the animal and the same growth?

DL: Fewer resources, yes.

3p: How pervasive is the use of antibiotics on the farm? On your panel, you mentioned that this practice has been around for a while. But are farmers using it, or does it still need some time to catch on?

DL: It’s definitely still growing in popularity. I think people are becoming more aware of probiotics, they’re becoming more aware of the benefits, and they’re seeing more [consistently effective] probiotic [strains on the market].

3p: What’s the cost-benefit for the farmer? Is this something that introduces a higher up-front cost? Could it save money in the long run? 

DL: When we talk about value, we’re talking about the feeding efficiency. They’re using fewer resources, and they’re getting more meat out of the production. So that’s where their value is coming from. It’s not this large up-front cost, and they should be able to recoup their value that they spend on a probiotic.

3p: And birds are less vulnerable to infection in the future, which can further reduce costs, right?

DL: Absolutely. We’re not replacing the antibiotics, but hopefully we have healthier birds so we don’t have a need for an antibiotic.

3p: Is this product line something you’re looking to expand?

DL: Absolutely. This is our first product on the market for [broiler chickens]. We’re certainly interested in probiotics for other animal species and probiotics for other benefits as well. But we’re starting where the most immediate need was, and we certainly think that we can make an impact in broilers.

3p: Do we know of any human health implications that could be associated with the use of probiotics in farm animals?

DL: Probiotics have been used for many, many years and there has not been an issue, so we don’t foresee there being a concern.

We go through all the safety and toxicology tests to make sure that [the probiotics are] safe for animal consumption and also safe for human consumption. Specifically, we look to ensure that they do not produce antibiotics and they do not have any antibiotic-resistance genes. So, we don’t have that same concern that antibiotic growth-promoters have in the industry.

3p: As you continue to develop products like these, do you think a probiotic could completely replace antibiotics for farm animals?

DL: I think it’s still kind of far off. We don’t see it happening on the human side — we still use antibiotics for humans. So, until we get it right on the human side I don’t think that we’ll get it right on the animal side.

The good thing about this probiotic is that we’re not making that push to go antibiotic-free. We’re just giving people a tool if they decide to go antibiotic-free and making it easier for them to do that.

Image credits: 1) Pixabay 2) Courtesy of the author 

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni