Last week, Consumer Reports doubled down on its questionable research about dangerous bacteria in ground beef, which Farmer Goes to Market cautioned you to take with a grain of salt, by releasing a review of the past 3 years of "in-depth studies" it has run on bacterial contamination and antibiotic resistant bacteria in meats. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's "Get Smart about Antibiotics Week," coincident with the World Health Organization's "Antibiotic Awareness Week," set the activist PR machinery in motion, ratcheting upward the media coverage on the subject of antibiotics in agriculture.
With all the negative attention and potential loss in consumer confidence, why do farmers continue to use antibiotics?
They protect from disease, now and in the future. Treating a single, sick animal with an antibiotic, much as you do a sick child, is an important use for antibiotics. But it's not the most important. Trying to treat sick animals in herds or flocks that can number in the thousands is not just folly; it's impossible. So farmers use antibiotics in two ways to remedy illness in that situation: They either medicate all animals in a group or barn using medicine in the common feed or water, and they may use antibiotics similarly when they know disease is present or likely, or they suspect an outbreak may occur. That kind of mass preventive medication has always been--and still is--supported as a legitimate use by the U.S. Food & Drug Adniminstration, which regulates all animal drugs. Furthermore, the accusation that farmers waste antibiotics simply to grow animals faster is a straw man. Antibiotics do improve animal productivity; however, they usually do so because they are preventing debilitating — sometimes deadly — underlying diseases.
It makes food more affordable. A National Research Council study estimated ending the low-level use of antibiotics in all meat production, adjusted for inflation to today’s dollars, could cost food consumers up to $2.9 billion per year. More importantly, the study added, future costs of a ban would be higher, for two reasons. First, it would create a climate of regulatory uncertainty that would scare companies away from investing in new technologies, a prediction that has come to pass as drug companies have abandoned support for cost-effective older drugs in favor of newer, more lucrative products. Second, any ban likely wouldn’t stop at “low-level” antibiotics. Continuing restrictions on all animal antibiotics would increase their cost, reduce their use by farmers and increase animal disease. All will likely increase the cost of food from those animals.
It is humane. The inescapable fact of nature is farm animals sometimes get sick — no matter how they’re raised. Decades of research prove modern antibiotics are almost universally more effective on a case-vs.-case basis than natural remedies relied upon by advocates of organic and all-natural production systems that forbid use of man-made antibiotics. That reality led even organic advocate Hubert Karreman, a Pennsylvania veterinarian, to write in a 2007 edition of the national organic magazine The New Farm, “I believe there was a fundamental mistake made by the U.S. organic community when it rejected all antibiotics, both sub-therapeutic and therapeutic. What I see in organic livestock systems encourages me in many ways, but I’m troubled by the absolute prohibition against antibiotics in the system.”
It may actually make food safer. More than three decades of scientific research suggests an irony in consumers buying "antibiotic-free" products in pursuit of better health: Those antibiotics consumers are paying to avoid can actually help prevent the risk of food-borne contamination. Studies in all farm animal species have demonstrated their prudent use can lower the burden of bacteria in animals entering the processing chain, reducing the chance food can become contaminated and infect humans. Even Consumer Reports own research from the last decade demonstrates higher levels of contamination in meats from farms that don't allow antibiotics.
It protects the environment. Reducing the use of technology like antibiotics does not preserve resources--it increases their consumption because efficiency suffers. A Journal of Animal Science study, for instance, predicts ending the use of antibiotics and hormones in U.S. beef alone would require an additional 1.6 million more cows and 34.8 million acres of land just to satisfy current beef demand. By improving the efficiency of how well animals digest and use feed, antibiotics help spare tons of waste nitrogen, phosphorus and even greenhouse gases from going into the environment as pollutants.
There's no proven reason to give up their benefits. Much as we don’t like to believe legislators, regulators and thoughtful consumers would base decisions on sensationalism or fad, the fact is the allaged connection between using antibiotics in animals and the increasing failure of human drugs is purely theory. One team of independent scholars, for instance, spent more than two years reviewing over 250 scientific papers on the subject, publishing their results in a 2004 issue of the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. They concluded that if you review only the facts — absent the passion of politics — the real risk in many cases just doesn’t exist at all.