The increasing recognition of antibiotic resistance is leading to further regulation and restrictions on the use of these antibiotics in the food supply chain. Coupled with increasing consumer awareness and nervousness, it is certain that alternatives need to be found to protect Australian food production and retain consumer confidence in our local produce.

Perception is a driving factor in consumer behaviour and Australian food producers are at risk of an overreaction to the growing awareness and concern over antibiotic resistance.

For example, the use of oral antibiotics, steroids and growth promoting hormones in Australian farming has been declining steadily since the 1950s and 1960s. Several classes of these drugs were restricted or banned decades ago and their use today is very much restricted to treating illness or disease in livestock and chicken. Yet signage in many retailers advertises products such as “hormone-free chicken”, adding to the consumer misconception that chickens are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics to make them fat and juicy.

The reality, as Australian farmers know, is that improved animal husbandry, vaccination, probiotics and the development of methods to improve feed conversion and weight gain have been significant factors leading to improved production.

An Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority report into the Quantity of Antimicrobial Products Sold for Veterinary Use in Australia between 2005 and 2010, released in March 2014 found: growth promotants made up 4 to 7 per cent of the total antimicrobials sold for use in Australia; there was no significant change in the total quantity of antimicrobial products sold over the time; 98 per cent of the total products sold was for use in food animals; and the drug used to prevent coccidiosis in chickens made up half of the total veterinary antibiotics sales – a class of drug not used in humans and not considered a contributing factor to the antibiotic-resistance in humans.

Nevertheless, given the global threat to public health from antimicrobial resistance, alternatives to antibiotics will be keenly sought after. Australian and international biotechnology companies are instead working on developing plant-based drugs to substitute for antibiotics. Clinical trials have been conducted at various farms and locations in Australia and more are expected as further regulation is introduced limiting the use of antibiotics.

In December last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a set of voluntary guidelines which effectively required the animal pharmaceutical industry to stop using antibiotics and antimicrobials in food for animals farmed for food production purposes.

To date, 25 out of 26 pharmaceutical companies that sell antibiotics have agreed to follow the new guidelines that will make it illegal to use their products in livestock feed for the purpose of growth enhancement.

The companies that have signed up include Bayer Healthcare (Animal Health Division), Boehringer Ingleheim Vetmedica, Eli Lilly & Co (Elanco Animal Health), Intervet, Med-Pharmax, Ridley, Virbac and Zoetis.

The guidelines are technically little more than a labelling shift. Farmers will still be able to use the drugs to treat sick and injured animals but will be banned from using them to promote livestock growth. Prescriptions or veterinary feed-directives will also be required to access the drugs which were previously available over the counter at feed stores and retail outlets.

Critics argue the regulations are too weak as they are voluntary and selfregulated, but they do represent a step that may lead to further enforceable regulation and Australian authorities are certainly watching to see the results.