Are farmed fish contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistance?

In response to concerns that more and more bacteria are growing increasingly resistant to disease-fighting antibiotics, food producers have been moving rapidly away from using the drugs for purposes such as enhancing growth. In fish production, however, antibiotics are still widely used to prevent the spread of disease. For example, even if a disease is found in only a handful of fish on an aquaculture farm, it's quite common for all the fish to be given antibiotics to stop the illness from spreading.

How can the aquaculture industry lead the way to responsible use of antibiotics without sacrificing food safety and endangering human health? That question was posed recently by The Fish Site, published by U.K.-based agricultural data provider 5m.

Part of the challenge in answering the question is that the data needed to assess the scope of antibiotic use in fish farming are sparse, inconsistent, and widely variable by country. In Norway, veterinarians and food-animal producers must report antibiotic use to a government agency, which then makes the data public, according to The Fish Site. In the U.S., by contrast, the FDA publishes annual sales of antimicrobial drugs, but the data aren't organized by species, making it impossible to analyze.

"Improving the way the use of antibiotics in food animals is reported is urgently needed to enable meaningful comparisons between species, countries and over time, and to demonstrate any reduction or change in use," argues the author of the article, Øistein Thorsen, a consultant at international advisory firm Trie, which owns 5m.

Thorsen is calling for the worldwide adoption of certification programs that would encourage fish farmers to adhere to certain antibiotic standards. The establishment of such standards, he argues, would help food producers learn techniques for reducing and refining antibiotic use.

Concerns about antibiotic resistance have been heating up in recent months. In July, a federal appeals court reversed a 2012 ruling that would have ordered the FDA to stop the routine use of some antibiotics in feed given to healthy animals. The appeals court concluded that the agency does not believe the practice endangers human health. In September, President Obama vowed to combat the problem of antibiotic resistance by speeding up the development of new drugs, but not by addressing the use of the products in animal production.

Some food producers continue to fight efforts to curb antibiotic use in livestock, fish and other animals. When PBS's "Frontline" aired a documentary that criticized the practice, the National Pork Board launched an online marketing campaign that directed consumers to websites supporting antibiotics in food production.

- here's The Fish Site's story