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Antibiotic use in animal production is sometimes necessary to treat animal infection, yet there is a risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria surviving inside the animal, transferring to the meat during slaughter and possibly infecting humans.

The meat we eat: Limiting antibiotics in animal production

by Abigail Thorpe and Christine Skopec
Jun 4, 2014


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A young pig begs for attention during a tour at Todd Dail's family farm in Erie, Ill.


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Pig farmer Mark Legan outside his barn in Fillmore, Ind.


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Legan Family Farm, outside Fillmore, Indiana.

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Under new FDA regulations, pharmaceutical companies are changing labels by voluntarily removing growth promotion as an acceptable use of antibiotics for animals. To more strictly limit use in animals, antibiotics important for humans would only be administered to treat sick animals and prevent diseases from spreading.

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Todd Dail's family pig farm and his approaches to herd management and the use of antibiotics.

Pharmaceutical companies agreed to voluntarily comply with recent FDA regulations meant to phase out the use of medically-important antibiotics for production purposes like growth-promotion.

The use of antibiotics in animal production has become an increasingly contentious issue because overuse can promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals that can then be passed on to humans. Bacteria from the pig's gut or intestinal tract may infect the meat during the slaughter process, and if meat is not properly prepared and cooked to a certain temperature, the bacteria may transfer to the kitchen, the dinner plate and be consumed.

As a result of the regulations, feed labels will no longer carry claims of growth promotion or provide feeding level guidelines for growth promotion. In addition, veterinary oversight is required for use of antibiotics that are medically important to humans and id use in animals.

For farmers close to areas with a larger agricultural base or who already employ veterinary oversight on a regular basis, this change may have little impact. The regulations will prove more difficult for far-removed farmers without easy access to a veterinarian, said Dr. Max Rodibaugh, a veterinarian based out of Frankfurt, Ind.

For pig farmer Todd Dail of Erie, Ill., the regulations won’t make much of a difference. “It’s not really affecting us. It’s just the regulatory [needs], keeping the paperwork right,” he said.

“Where it becomes a bit of a challenge, is, with growth-promoting levels I was able to use the antibiotics at a lower level than I’m going to be able to now,” said Matt Ackerman, Dail’s consulting veterinarian. Previously, he could use the lower levels to help fight or prevent infection on a continuing level. But now, due to the removal of the growth-promoting level, antibiotic feed can only be administered at a higher level to actively fight infection.

According to Ackerman, the low-dose levels were effective in treating infection on the farm. “The growth-promoting level were killing bacteria at the same level the others were…really it’s just a great level to use the product at,” he said.

“On paper it’s gonna be slanted that we’re gonna use more drugs,” said Dail, since they’ll be required to use higher doses of antibiotic for either preventative or active treatment.

The farm doesn’t use a lot of antibiotics, said Dail.

The farm implements various measures to help reduce the use of antibiotics and promote animal health, including vaccinations and biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of disease from human to animal, or from one farm to the next.

And the Dails are serious about preventing disease spread. On my trip to the farm I was handed two large, clear plastic bags to place over my shoes before entering the pig barns. This was not only to protect my shoes, but to prevent me from carrying any disease or bacteria into the pig barns.

They were also careful to ensure that I hadn’t visited any other pig farms within the last 48 hours, as disease and bacteria can easily be transferred from one farm to another. The aggressive spread of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus, or PED, a virus that affects the small intestine of pigs, has led to careful enforcement of this period.

The Dails also do their own trucking and feed to help cut down on the risk of infection and to be more cost effective.

“All these things do, is they’re designed to cut down on our antibiotic use,” said Ackerman.

Mark Legan of Fillmore, Ind. owns a pig farm with 3,000 sows and employs management practices like biosecurity, vaccinations and herd segregation to help improve herd health.

Biosecurity refers to measures such as boot coverings, temporary quarantines of personnel exposed to different pig farms and other measure to limit any spread of disease.

Maintaining the confidence of the consumer is key to any farm’s success, said Legan. Both Legan and Dail operate under the motto “every sow, every pig, every day.” They are constantly monitoring their pigs and the conditions. “When we talk herd health it’s not just about antibiotics,” said Legan.

Legan makes it a priority to make use of these practices “to improve the pigs’ health so that they grow well, they perform well and they stay relatively disease free and lessen the need for antibiotics.”

Dail and Legan don’t want to use antibiotics if they don’t have to. Antibiotics are costly, in addition to other concerns, and maintaining herd health through management practices can help cut down on its use.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric in terms of antibiotic usage, in terms of environmental impact, in terms of animal welfare that I think is really causing a lot of consumers to have their confidence shaken, not only in pig production, but in our food supply in general,” said Legan.

“This is not a total ban of antibiotics in feed or water,” said Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the National PorkProducers Council as quoted by the National Pork Board. “It will just affect the medically importantones [for humans] and just for growth promotion. Antibiotic use for prevention, treatment and control of illness or disease will remain.” Producers will need a feed directive from a vet to access certain covered feed-grade antibiotics - those important to humans - and veterinarian oversight and diagnosis, according to the board's newsletter.

For both Dail and Legan, antibiotic usage for prevention is an important step in maintaining herd health. “If we don’t use products for prevention, we’ll end up using more once the animals get sick,” said Legan.

Preventative measures, including antibiotic use, are important in large farms because “the populations are larger and closer together, so if there is a problem it tends to repeat itself,” said Rodibaugh, Legan’s consulting veterinarian.

What about the possibilities of antibiotic-free, organic animal production? According to Rodibaugh “We don’t necessarily know that it’s a healthier choice.”

But according to Danielle Nierenberg of Food Tank, the animal production process as a whole has to be reinvented if we are to move towards a more sustainable, healthy way of farming and consuming.

Food Tank is working to highlight the repercussions of our current practices in food production, focusing on the possible dangers of antibiotic use in animals leading to antibiotic resistance in humans.

Antibiotics should only ever be used when animals are sick, said Nierenberg. The modern practice of large-scale animal production, with feed lots and animals packed in together “is not the best way to be producing food,” she said.

Industry change “requires consumers to really stop looking at meat as the center of their food,” continued Nierenberg, so that farms can operate on a smaller scale, enabling them to focus on sustainable animal production.

For Jeremy House of Meadow Haven Farm, the key to healthy, responsible farming practices is working within the natural parameters of nature to mimic the natural environment that encourages animal growth and health. “It all starts with balance,” he said.

In large factory farms, animals are crowded together in such a way that natural selection has to take effect, and only the strongest would survive, said House. Farmers then have to use antibiotics to counter that.

Meadow Haven is an organic farm that uses no GMOs, herbicides or pesticides, and only uses antibiotics if an animal’s life is in jeopardy, according to House. All of their pigs live outside in a pasture lot of 5-6 acres.

The price of raising animals this way is a more expensive product for consumers. “You’re asking is the consumer willing to pay the difference?” said House.

But when looking at the costs of organic, you also have to weigh in the unaccounted costs of large-scale, industrial farming. There are costs to farming practices that depreciate the soil, promote poor animal conditions, and affect human health, said House.

The key is to move towards smaller, sustainable farming, he said. Nothing can stop organic if the consumer is willing to pay. In the end, we should not be looking at how many families can one farm feed, but how many families can one farm raise, said House.

The subject of animal production and human health has spread into the political sphere. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois has cosponsored two bills designed to address the issue of antibiotic use in animal production, and is actively involved in advocating for increased funding to research the affects of antibiotic use in animals.

But changes are slow to come, and the bills have yet to move forward since their introduction in March 2013, said the Congresswoman’s office.

Text story by Abigail Thorpe