Antibiotics have become a hot-button topic in both the agriculture industry and medical field. Antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria continue to cause problems for both humans and animals, and many people are understandably concerned about antibiotic usage in farm animals.
First of all, it should be noted that all meat, milk, and eggs are free of antibiotics. All animal-based products that enter the food system are tested for antibiotic residue. If antibiotic residue is found, it can be traced back to the farm of origin. The farmer responsible will have to pay severe penalties, which may include losing their contract with the processor. As a result, farmers keep strict records of all antibiotic usage. They work closely with a veterinarian to ensure that the medication passes out of the animal before it is used for food.
Why are antibiotics used in the livestock industry? The same reason people take them; to fight infection. Antibiotics are often given to sick or injured animals to help them heal faster. Antibiotics have also historically been fed at sub-therapeutic levels to help animals grow faster by limiting the occurrence of diarrhea and other health challenges. Antibiotics can no longer be fed without a Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD). This is basically a prescription from a veterinarian which is only given when the animals really need it.
When I interned at a pig farm, we used antibiotics on piglets that had diarrhea or were lame. It was amazing how quickly they would heal after just one or two days of treatment. From an animal welfare standpoint, it was a no-brainer to use antibiotics if it limited the animal’s suffering.
When at the grocery store, you may see a label reading “Antibiotic Free” on a package of meat. Since all meat is free of antibiotics, this is just a marketing tactic to encourage consumers to purchase a particular product. Some labels may read something like, “Raised without antibiotics”. This means that the animal was never given antibiotics. Presumably, this animal was never sick or injured. It may have also been raised on an organic farm where antibiotics are not allowed for any reason.
With the movement for “all-natural” foods and medications, antibiotics are getting less and less popular. Some no longer work as effectively, and others can have negative effects on gut health. With the emergence of antibiotic resistance and the VFD law, many farmers have had to reevaluate their herd health program. Many have limited their antibiotic use or have stopped using them altogether in some cases. Unfortunately, this can lead to the unnecessary suffering of animals if not handled properly.
Personally, I think there should be a balance between limiting antibiotic use and treating animals that need it. When I worked on the pig farm, we were looking at alternative methods to treat mastitis in female pigs. We started using a calcium IV instead of treating her with an antibiotic right away in the hopes that it would decrease costs and antibiotic resistance. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t treat her with an antibiotic if she showed no signs of improvement.
If you’re still concerned about antibiotic use on farms, talk to a farmer. They’d be happy to share their management strategies. You can even ask them if they plan on limiting their antibiotic usage and finding alternative methods. We are always striving to improve in the agriculture industry!