How the Australian pig industry is meeting the AMR challenge


By Adam Florance
Wednesday, 25 October, 2017


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While antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a major issue worldwide, the Australian pig industry seems to be in a much better place compared to its overseas counterparts.

According to Dr Darren Trott, Professor of Veterinary Microbiology at the University of Adelaide, the Australian pig industry is among the best in the world in animal welfare standards, minimising unnecessary antibiotic treatments, and, thanks to a new federal government grant, in monitoring antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Trott has been conducting research into AMR in the pig industry over the last two decades. His latest paper ‘Current and Future Antimicrobial Resistance Issues for the Australian Pig Industry’ is a collaboration with Dr Sam Abraham and Dr Mark O’Dea of Murdoch University and will be presented at the upcoming Australasian Pig Science Association Conference.

We asked Trott how he came to be such an ambassador for the Australian pig industry. “The Australian pig industry has long been an early adopter of world’s best practice in a wide range of animal health and welfare issues and is very proactive in minimising the unnecessary use of antibiotics. All farmed animals may need an antibiotic treatment if they get sick with a bacterial infection, as do we humans, but as we now know, antibiotic overuse can lead to huge problems with resistance and it can affect both human and animal health.”

The ideal scenario would be availability of effective vaccines for all the major illnesses of farmed animals that require antibiotics. However, the development of vaccines is slow and costly and many do not protect against all strains of disease-causing bacteria.

“Unfortunately, there are no effective vaccines in Australia for a number of key pig diseases, hence antibiotics are still very important in their treatment and control. However, if we can reduce antibiotic use to the lowest possible level through other management strategies then we can continue to provide a top-quality source of protein that is among the safest in the world. As little antibiotics as possible, but as much as necessary to maintain the highest standards of animal welfare and efficient production should be our aim.

“One animal management system we’d like to see implemented on more piggeries in Australia, which has been very successful in minimising recurring patterns of disease transmission, is known as ‘all-in-all-out’. In Australia, a number of farms still use a continuous flow system, where disease transmission between pigs of different ages is more likely to occur. We would certainly like to see if there are major differences in antibiotic use and AMR between these two systems. As it is very expensive to change management systems, we would need to see compelling evidence of economic and public health benefits of one over the other.

“We’re lucky in that the majority of antibiotics that are critically important to human health, such as fluoroquinolones, are not used in food-producing animals in Australia. The restrictions on these antibiotics in both human and animal health in Australia mean we have among the lowest rates of resistance in the world. We also do not use colistin, one of the older generation antibiotics, which has many side effects that is now being used as a last resort treatment for multidrug-resistant superbug infections in humans. Colistin has been widely used in farming in many countries. Colistin resistance was first documented in China and is spreading around the globe, and we certainly need to keep that out of our local food supply chain.”

When asked how food imports affect AMR in the Australian pig industry, Trott said, “So far our rigorous quarantine policies have prevented any serious damage to the local industry. Australia doesn’t allow live animal or fresh pig product imports, although there has been a recent increase in the importation of cooked product such as imported pre-cooked pork belly, which needs to be closely monitored as it is really hurting our local industry. Frozen imports, which are mostly used for smallgoods, do not represent a substantial risk for AMR but they do hurt the overall viability of the API (Australian pig industry) as well. We have a wonderful industry here, I’d say second only to Scandinavia in our restrictions on antibiotic use, but we need to support it to keep it viable and healthy.

“We work very closely with Australian Pork Limited, and they are doing an excellent job of promoting Aussie-produced pork as a high-quality protein source that ‘pound for pound’ is outstanding value, but the Australian pig industry is exposed to the fluctuations of international trade. If we can make further reductions in our antibiotic use and document it with affordable reliable AMR surveillance, it could open more lucrative export markets. This would provide a financial incentive for producers to use as little antibiotics as possible.

“AMR surveillance in animals is expensive and time-consuming, and our low rate of AMR resistance has been confirmed by several one-off surveys funded by industry. These high-labour cost methods have been adequate to demonstrate low AMR risk, but the new robotic techniques to be financed by the latest $1.3 million Rural Research for Profit grant will result in a system of cost-effective and timely continued surveillance focused on four main species of gut microbes and testing for resistance to 15 antibiotics.”

Led by Australian Pork Limited, the Australian Chicken Meat Federation and Chief Investigator Dr Sam Abraham, this research project will use high-tech robots to define the low level of AMR risk in pigs and chickens within our supply chains. The laboratory robots can isolate, count and characterise large numbers of bacteria from animal faeces to determine the presence and distribution of AMR at both herd and national levels.

Helping local farmers demonstrate their low AMR risk status will give them a competitive advantage in the international marketplace.

“In Australia the mining boom is over, and while we can’t become the bread basket for the world, we should focus on high-quality food exports that are healthy and safe for the consumer. We don’t face many of the issues in other countries that rely upon food imports.”

Trott’s recent article on the industry has been accepted for publication by CSIRO. Commenting on the article, he said, “It is interesting to be able to look at the state of play of the Australian pig industry at present with respect to antibiotic use and AMR. The main area we need to focus on is how do we continue to reduce the amount of antibiotics we use in pig production whilst maintaining herd health, welfare and production. Changes in management systems can be as effective as pharmaceutical solutions and minimising antibiotic use is also more cost-effective for the producer, but requires much more attention to detail.

“We need to remember that the main driver of AMR in the global context is antibiotic use in humans not agriculture; however, the consumer needs to be assured that their food supply is safe and all effort is being made to minimise antibiotic use in farm animals, particularly the critically important ones. We need to adopt very rigorous standards of hygiene, husbandry and biosecurity. Current antibiotics are losing their effectiveness and new antibiotics are still many decades away. Our only choice is to preserve the drugs we currently have for as long as possible and the Australian pig industry is ready to meet this challenge.”

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/imzyx

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