Recently, I spent a morning with a country veterinarian. As he checked cattle for their health certificates, we talked about antibiotic use in cattle, sheep, pigs, turkeys and chickens. He’s observed a deeply concerning trend; many sick animals are not being treated with antibiotics because ranchers and farmers are required to keep their animals ABF (antibiotic free) for their large, socially driven corporate customers.
When animals get sick, and many do, just like many kids get sick, they need antibiotics to get better. Most parents would never withhold antibiotics if their child had an infection that a medicine would help cure. That would be cruelly neglectful. Most in ag production would also gladly pay for the antimicrobials to help their animals heal from an infection.
But over the last few years we’ve seen social paranoia needlessly demonize the right judicious use of antibiotics. Chick-fil-a declared they’ll end antibiotic use in their chickens by 2019. Last week, KFC announced that by the end of 2018 all their chicken will be raised without antibiotics “important to human medicine.” Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Subway have also received wide social media praise for going antibiotic free. Is this a scientifically justifiable reaction?
Since my visit with the veterinarian, I’ve been searching for peer reviewed research which definitively shows that antibiotic use in animals has caused human health problems. Sure, there’s plenty of rhetoric to that effect, but I’ve been surprised to find that the science isn’t backing the hysteria. Where are the studies? Surely if we’re withholding necessary treatment from animals and allowing them to suffer and die, we must have a preponderance of evidence that our decisions are sound. Or not…
There is almost no antibiotic residue found in meat
The USDA conducts a rigorous antibiotic residues testing program on a regular basis, and publishes its findings with collaboration from the FDA, the CDC, the EPA, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), and the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), who all contribute to the United States National Residue Program (U.S. NRP).
In its most recent report, the U.S. NRP found that “Under the domestic scheduled sampling program, in 2014, FSIS [the Food Safety and Inspection Service] collected 6,066 residue samples, from which 12 violative analytes were reported from 10 samples. These 10 samples account for 9 unique carcass violations, which is less than 1 percent of the samples collected.” [0.15 percent]
This demonstrates that the recommended withdrawal periods for antibiotics are being carefully followed and that almost all meat is antibiotic free. That was even before the newly implemented Veterinarian Feed Directive (VFD) that further restricts AB use. Even before the VFD, antibiotic residues were found less and less frequently in meat samples according to U.S. NRP reports.
So where is the hard science, the peer reviewed, demonstrable evidence that has caused this socially driven paranoia about antibiotic resistance caused by meat? Yes, the careless use of antibiotics in humans can cause AB resistance, but there is no evidence that shows the minute amount of antibiotic residue in meat is causing any such human health issues.
Meanwhile, poultry farmers watch thousands of birds die that could’ve lived with the responsible use of antibiotics. Mortality rates in ABF poultry flocks have climbed by 2 percent according to growers I’ve spoken with recently. By keeping their herds AB free for their customers, cattle and pork producers must cull animals out that get sick and sell them for less or watch them suffer and often die. Veterinarians across the land are reporting that without the judicious use of antibiotics, many animals are needlessly staying sick and dying slow and painful deaths. How is that responsible or socially acceptable?
Big food chains are making big food claims about their ABF programs, but they’re based on the manipulation of unjustified fears rather than sound science. Is it economically or environmentally sustainable to euthanize untold thousands of animals to pacify an unsubstantiated paranoia? Who’s going to answer for the wrongful suffering and senseless growing mortality of untreated animals?
Why isn’t anyone asking these questions on social media?