Another day and another meat producer bows to ill-informed consumer pressure and announces it will be curbing or eliminating the use of antibiotics in livestock rearing.
Seizing on consumer pressure, companies such as Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms Inc., retailers Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc., and fast food chains such as Chick-fil-A have jumped on the antibiotic-free bandwagon.
But questions remain, including the feasibility and sustainability of raising livestock in an antibiotic-free environment in sufficient numbers to feed an ever-growing population of meat eaters and at prices they can afford.
In a parallel universe, where we hadn’t starved the American Indians from their lands by ruthlessly hunting herds of bison that thundered across the Great Plains several centuries ago, perhaps we’d all be enjoying lower-fat, denser, grass-fed, and wonderfully flavorful buffalo meat in our burgers at our family barbecues.
But instead, to feed the 320 million or so meat eaters across the United States, who on average consume about 220 lbs. of meat and poultry per year, we’re left to the methods of a livestock industry that raises animals in close quarters under conditions in which, without antibiotics, disease can spread quickly. But with antibiotics, the animals are protected and healthy. (In a sadly ironic twist, this means that opposition to treating livestock with antibiotics means support for letting them suffer from disease.)
Several years ago, The Wall Street Journal reported on the monumental task facing meat producers in light of an ever-increasing demand for meat:
“At current consumption rates, the world would need to generate 455 million metric tons of meat annually by 2050, when the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion, from 7.3 billion today …”
Since the 1950s, antibiotics have been used routinely in the feed and drinking water of livestock raised for human consumption. This practice has made animals healthier overall.
It has also made them weigh more. The mechanism of this weight gain is not completely understood, but it is believed that continuously administering sub-therapeutic dosages of antibiotics results in better nutrient absorption.
Whatever the cause, the greater weight is an obvious financial benefit to livestock farmers. But it benefits consumers, too, by keeping prices down.
But consumer advocates have raised two concerns, neither of which stands up to scientific testing: (1) that there are antibiotic residues in the meat we eat and (2) that the continued use of antibiotics in livestock is responsible for the creation of antibiotic-resistant super bugs that can infect humans.
It has been against the law for decades to sell meat and dairy products containing antibiotic residues at time of sale. To put it simply, meat sold in the U.S. is already antibiotic-free and has been for a long time.
A 2011 white paper published by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture stated:
“If antibiotics are administered to cure a sick animal, the animal itself—in the case of meat production, or animal products, such as milk—is not allowed to enter the food supply until the withdrawal period has passed and the medicine has sufficiently cleared the animal’s system. The required periods for withdrawing medication are specific for each drug and species and are approved by the FDA based on research studies of residues in edible tissues.”
While this may be a revelation to consumers, poultry producers have known it for a long time. One large, well-known poultry producer all but said so on its website when it posted the following:
“Chickens not raised for the organic and no-antibiotics-ever program are generally treated to prevent common intestinal illnesses using ionophores. Ionophores are a type of animal-only antibiotic not used in human medicine, and are not associated with antibacterial resistance in human medicine. Chickens marketed as no-antibiotics-ever and organic never receive any antibiotics.
“As part of our animal welfare commitment, should animals become ill – including organic and no-antibiotics-ever – they will be treated as medically appropriate. However, if antibiotics are used, those animals are not marketed as no-antibiotics-ever or organic. In those rare cases, federally mandated withdrawal periods ensure products are free of antibiotic-residue as defined by the USDA.”
Notwithstanding, public pressure on politicians and ultimately the U.S. Food and Drug Administration came to a head in December 2012 when the FDA published voluntary guidelines calling on the industry to observe more prudent use of antibiotics and to work toward their complete withdrawal at the growth-promotion level.
Guidance 209, published in 2012, specifically stated two voluntary principles:
“[T]he use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals [should be limited] to uses in food-producing animals that are considered necessary for assuring animal health … and [the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should] include veterinary oversight or consultation.”
Guidance 213 was more specific to the elimination of antibiotics used in animal feeds. It provides the procedures for voluntarily phasing out growth promotion indications and establishing therapeutic treatment indications for the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals.
While the prudent use of antibiotics in the rearing of livestock is just that, similar consumer pressures across the Atlantic during the mid-1990s led the European Union to call for a phasing out of antibiotics used in livestock for growth promotion—with unexpected consequences.
Denmark was the first country, issuing a voluntary ban in 1998 that became compulsory in 2000. The result was an increase in death and disease among livestock, greater use of antibiotics to control and treat disease, and no decrease in antibiotic resistance in the human population.
The June 2010 issue of Beef Quarterly explained:
“It was expected that a ban on growth promotion and preventive uses would reduce total antibiotic consumption in livestock. However, as was reported by the Danish government, ‘consumption has increased gradually by 110 percent from 1998 through 2008.’ … It does not appear the public health in Denmark has improved since the ban; Salmonella and Campylobacter illness rates have not decreased and methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has been steadily increasing for the last 10 years. Additionally, the resistance levels in some key human infections has not declined, but increased.”
Writing in The Journal of Applied Poultry Research, veterinarian Hector Cervantes explains:
“There is little convincing scientific evidence that the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals is contributing to the antibiotic resistance issues that are relevant to human medicine. However, public perception in first-world countries suggests that consumers believe this to be true. According to the U.S. Organic Trade Association, sales of antibiotic-free (ABF) organic foods have grown at a rate of 20 percent per year since 1990. This is in spite of wider recognition that antibiotic resistance in humans is caused by antibiotic use in humans and not in food-producing animals.”
Raising healthy livestock, given the ever-increasing demand for high-quality, value-priced meat, without the use of antimicrobials is a challenge. Farmers, faced with the juxtaposed demands of quality and affordability, and striving to care properly for their livestock’s health, will have to continue to practice judicious use of antimicrobials to treat or prevent diseases in order to maintain a healthy population of animals while following the FDA’s recommended withdrawal times to prevent antibiotic residues.
Meat producers could do much to improve public understanding and discussion by making this clear and assuring consumers that they have nothing to worry about.
Gregory J. Rummo, a Visiting Instructor of Chemistry at Palm Beach Atlantic University, is founder and sales and marketing director of New Chemic (US) Inc., and a Contributing Writer for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. The views expressed in this column are his own.