Thanks to sensationalized media reporting and a misinformed Congressman or two, antibiotic use in livestock farming has become a source of controversy in the United States. Long-standing best management practices and responsible farmers work continually to maintain the efficacy of these pharmaceutical tools. Confirming common farm knowledge and wisdom, research from a Purdue University animal scientist proves the responsible use of antibiotics in livestock farming is indeed an effective method of disease prevention and treatment.
“Antibiotics are used in two basic ways,” says Purdue’s Paul Ebner. “One use is to treat a specific disease. But (antibiotics) also are used preventatively. This is to prevent disease in general.” It’s this second use that has some activists and legislators up in arms.
“People think all of the livestock feed is laced with antibiotics, and that is just not true. Every commodity group has guidelines, and the American Veterinary Medical Association has guidelines. The best thing for the producers to do is to work with their veterinarians so they can use these products in the healthiest, most efficient ways possible.”
Farmers are aware that for both consumer and animal safety, not all antibiotics can be used with every species, and producers don’t simply use them without just cause, Ebner said.
“Most antibiotics have required withdrawal times, or a specific amount of time the animal must not consume the medication before processing,” he said. Farmers follow these specific guidelines to “ensure that residues don’t remain in the meat.”
To further insure human health and food safety, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service regularly tests for antibiotic residues. If a test indicates higher levels than Federal Drug Administration regulations allow, Ebner says the product is discarded.
Much of the controversy with livestock antibiotic use comes from the natural occurrence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or so-called superbugs, that affect humans. However, Ebner said scientific research continues to prove that antibiotic resistance in humans is much more closely related to human antibiotic use than on-farm use.
“When we look at antibiotic use patterns in humans and human antibiotic resistance patterns, they mirror each other,” he said.
Nonetheless, farmers understand that it is critically important for livestock producers to be prudent with antibiotics and to be transparent with the public about their efforts to responsibly use them. Programs like the National Pork Board’s Pork Quality Assurance Plus program continue to teach and inform farmers about these guidelines and best management practices. Each livestock species’ industry organization has established a similar program or campaign.
“Producers should just work with their veterinarians to make sure they are using the antibiotics properly,” Ebner says. “They also should be open and share with others when asked about antibiotic use. It’s important that the public understand that farmers do take this seriously and that they’re doing the best they can to use antibiotics in the most responsible way possible.”
From Katie Couric’s breathless reporting on the dangers of livestock farming and antibiotic use to Congressman Louise Slaughter’s insistence that on-farm use of animal health products is causing “superbugs,” it’s understandable why consumers are confused about the facts and the fiction at the intersection of animal and human health. As Purdue’s Ebner and dozens of other land-grant university researchers have pointed out, increased human use of antibiotics, coupled with other challenges in human medicine, are farm more likely to cause and exacerbate issues with these so-called “superbugs.”
It’s important to remember, as with all recent controversies surrounding livestock production, that farmers are people and consumers, too. Beef, pork and poultry producers don’t keep a separate stash of meat produced from animals untreated with antibiotics or other animal health tools. We shop at the same groceries and meat markets as our friends and neighbors.
We drink the same water, breathe the same air, and eat the same food as everyone else in our community.
Keep that in mind the next time some reporter, activist, or Congressman tries to convince you that what happens on the farm is somehow hazardous to your health.