Antibiotics in livestock do more good than harm

The au courant livestock inquisition of the twenty-first century has arrived, and the U.S. populace is becoming drastically more interested in where animal and livestock products come from. 

Past inquiries have included the pink slime fiasco, the banning of rBST use in dairy cows, and the mad cow disease scare. The issue of antibiotic usage in livestock has been brought back the forefront of the animal growth debate with the recent decision by the Food and Drug Administration to restrict the use of antibiotics on livestock animals.

The belief that the road to good health is antibiotic-free is a common misunderstanding. Antibiotics have a time and a place where they can be incredibly helpful. The FDA should monitor antibiotic use in livestock animals more closely, but such a restriction will have far-reaching consequences.

According to The New York Times, the FDA has constructed a new policy that would phase out what they see as the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in chickens, pigs and cattle raised for meat. Under this legislation, farmers will be prohibited from using antibiotics without a prescription from a licensed veterinarian.

Antibiotics are added to livestock feeds because they promote animal welfare, limit disease and promote growth, according to Poultry Science and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These compounds are not used indiscriminately, but rather to keep animals healthy and growing.

Antibiotics reduce bacteria in the gut, decreasing the amount of energy and protein required to maintain intestinal tissues and allowing it to be used for growth instead. Additionally, animals fed constant but low amounts of antibiotics are healthier and do not have to direct significant amounts of energy towards immune response.

The healthiest animals are generally ones who do get fed antibiotics. When organic or all-natural production systems restrict the use of antibiotics and medications for their animals, the result is a moral dilemma. Such producers begin to weigh the welfare of the animal against the loss of the animal’s monetary worth from the program.

Unfortunately, the animal almost always loses in those situations. Dairy cows lying in a field for days with a broken leg before being culled is far more common than it should be in organic or all-natural systems.

Under the FDA’s antibiotic ban, antibiotic use would be acceptable for cattle with obvious disease or injury. However, the restriction of what is referred to as a subtherapeutic use could mean that more animals get to a state of serious harm before receiving treatment. Small, constant doses of antibiotics are more effective on animal health than using large prescriptions at the time of sickness.

As a result, discontinuation of antibiotic usage will have a negative impact on animal health, without necessarily decreasing overall use of antibiotics.

Denmark banned the use of antibiotics as growth promotants in 1995, according to North Carolina State University. Since the ban, antibiotic usage has increased, especially those used in human medicines. By 2001, total consumption of antibiotics in Denmark was equivalent to the amount used before the ban.

Residues in animal products from medical drugs are not present at the levels the media communicates. For the use of antibiotic to be approved, residue in the meat must be at least hundredfold less than the dose that demonstrates no biological effects, according to the FDA.

Antibiotics are not inherently evil, as many consumers believe, but there is a risk. It just doesn’t exist in animal and meat products. The true danger of antibiotic use lies in the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which is due to antibiotic use by humans and animals alike.

Before the FDA bans the use of antibiotics as growth enhancers, alternatives to antibiotics must be found. Animal welfare and a number of other factors will suffer as a consequence of this new legislation.

If the industry could find ways to improve sanitation in livestock facilities in conjunction with reducing the inherent pathogen loads present at animal operations, phasing out the use of antibiotics would be a far more sustainable plan that would supplement animal welfare and decreased use of antibiotics.      

Livestock agriculture is constantly under microscopic evaluation, and that’s not a bad thing. Continuous scrutiny about the production of animal products forces a transparency that benefits both the industry and the consumer.

Restricting the use of antibiotics is not the path to a healthier life. Innovative management practices that render antibiotics an obsolete tool will pave the road to a better tomorrow.

-Corrine Harris is a senior animal science major from Edmonds. She can be contacted at 335-2290 or by [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the staff of The Daily Evergreen or those of Student Publications.