Are Nutraceuticals the Next Big Thing in Animal Biotechnology?

The "meat equation" is delicately balanced. It is projected that in the next twenty years mankind will consume three times the meat that we currently produce. Without production tools such as antibiotics that have been the mainstay of growth promotion in livestock production, supply is unlikely to meet demand driving up prices. If nutraceuticals have similar production gains as antibiotics, are derived from natural sources and are therefore more acceptable, can they play a major role in future animal production?

The last ten years has seen booming sales of human nutraceutical products as people hunger for more information on complementary health products. At the start of 2007, the resulting nutraceutical industry is estimated to be worth over US$25 billion. Beyond cost of production, there are five main areas that need to be considered in the shift to new feed additives such as nutraceuticals:

1. Do They Work? - Some nutraceutical compounds have been well researched and we know how and why they work. Yeast extracts, especially beta glucose, stimulate the immune system of animals and produce similar effects to antibiotics in terms of disease protection and increased production. Other yeast extracts have also been found to be beneficial in animals, especially young animals, where the cocktail of vitamins and co-factors aid digestion.

Biotechnology has also provided a range of enzyme complements that are used as feed additives, improving feed utilisation and weight gain by 3-4% in some animals. Oligosaccharide enzymes such as those that breakdown mannan and fructose components in the diet for example, can result in performance enhancements of between 3 - 20%.

2. Will producers use them? - They say that you can fool a farmer once, but can never do it twice. One of the challenges with introducing new technologies is the need for an incentive, reduced costs, increased production or changing the regulatory environment in which they operate.

Countries in the European Union have banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, forcing change. In the United States producers still have a choice regarding antibiotic use. There is no doubt that markets for "antibiotic free" produce have opened up and that in itself provides opportunities.

As long there is a choice, commodity producers will gravitate to the methodology which they have come to depend on; antibiotics. The need for ever-increasing production gains is resulting in products combining antibiotics and nutraceuticals to achieve synergistic effects (better than either one alone) that provide producers an incentive to use nutraceuticals feed ingredients to increase production and reduce the dependence on antibiotics.

3. Will customers accept them? - Feed additives for animal production are subject to the similar trends as food selection by consumers. The current transition where consumers are demanding "natural" food products containing fewer additives may benefit the introduction of nutraceuticals. Consumer pressure to remove antibiotics as feed additives for growth promotion also gives nutraceuticals a strong position because they are "natural" and have no negative residue effects.

4. Will they damage the environment? - The impact of production systems on the environment is constantly reviewed by Regulators. Zinc, a feed supplement sometimes described as a nutraceutical, has been shown to be a viable alternative to antibiotics, but its extensive long-term use is unlikely due to possible environmental impact. Zinc in US piglet feeds at a rate of 2000 parts per million, could add over 7000 tons of zinc to the environment.

Nutraceuticals on the other hand, have an extremely favourable environmental profile. A large number of nutraceuticals can be sourced from the waste products of other processes (brewing yeast for example), tend to be readily digested and are degraded because of their high organic content.

5. Will the regulators allow them? - At present nutraceutical food and feed additives are not heavily scrutinised by regulators in any part of the world. For this reason, nutraceuticals are being widely used in Europe (where medicated growth agents and feed additives are banned) as well as other parts of the world.

The interest and perhaps concern for all forms of nutraceuticals is how long will regulatory authorities permit the lack of definition and efficacy surrounding nutraceuticals?

Changes are inevitable and in some respect necessary in order to realise the full potential of nutraceuticals. Although the risk to animal and human health may be low, producers will favour cheaper nutraceuticals that have not been extensively researched. Claims that are too expensive to prove, will be overlooked by manufacturers and open the industry to a range of different product qualities.

Any proposed regulations surrounding nutraceuticals should be scientifically based. The most pressing issue facing the use of nutraceuticals is the introduction of sensible regulatory guidelines to assure qualification of the "implied" effects of many compounds.

In summary, there seems enormous potential for nutraceuticals to be used in animal production. They are a low cost, effective replacement for antibiotics currently used, and/or promote better digestion and reduced production costs from superior feed utilization. They are also likely to be widely accepted by consumers, have a relatively quick path to market and (at present) do not face significant regulatory hurdles. They may well be the next big thing in animal production.


by Dr Calvin London, Stirling Products Limited

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