Antibiotics have long been used in animal production to treat disease and reduce mortality. But lately, “antibiotics” has been used as somewhat of a bad word in relation to agriculture. At Southland Organics, we're committed to doing our part to bridge the gap between agriculture producers and everyday consumers to strengthen understanding and acceptance of the agriculture industry. Let's dive into when antibiotics are allowed in animal agriculture, the rules around their use and what it really means when food labels say “raised without antibiotics.”
What are antibiotics?
Less than a century ago, an incidental finding changed medicine forever. In 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming found a petri dish growing staph bacteria infected with mold. Curiously enough, it seemed that the mold had prevented bacteria from growing in the areas closest to it. Further investigation of this phenomenon found that it produced a self-defense compound capable of killing bacteria. Today, we know this compound as penicillin, the first antimicrobial ever discovered.
Antimicrobials, or antibiotics, are substances used to treat or prevent bacterial infections by killing or inhibiting the growth of bacteria in or on the body. In the years since Dr. Fleming’s accidental discovery, our understanding of these powerful substances has grown exponentially. Today, there are more than 100 antibiotic drugs available for use in people and animals, each with targeted uses. These antibiotics open doors to more efficiently and effectively correct diseases caused by bacterial agents as well as disease prevention.
Antibiotics in Agriculture
In the world of food animal production, bacterial disease is not uncommon. High stocking density, long distance shipping and holes in biosecurity practices all have the ability to introduce infectious diseases caused by bacteria.
The truth of the matter is that unhealthy animals are not productive, profitable or happy. Antimicrobial products have allowed producers to reduce mortality caused by common bacterial diseases. Recent studies performed with commercial poultry broilers have even shown that antibiotic use can improve animal welfare conditions by reducing incidence and severity of disease states as well as improving consistency of feed and water intake across their growing period.
If antimicrobials have the ability to improve animal health and animal welfare while ensuring that the producer runs a profitable operation, why have they attracted such negative attention from consumers?
You may have read the headlines that demonize the poultry, beef and dairy producers in our country for their use of antibiotics. If you have not seen those, you have definitely seen product labels plastered with the words “raised without antibiotics” or “this product contains no antibiotics.” We want to clear the air about the use of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals.
Most of the concern about antibiotic use in food animals was born out of a concern for the emergence of resistant bacterial strains and the impact that may have on human health. For decades after antibiotics were discovered, they were the first line of defense for treating illness in animals and in people. This was done without concern for the cause of disease or the consequences of overuse—not out of negligence but rather because there was not enough understanding.
Once antibiotic-resistant bacteria, antibiotic-resistant infections and antibiotic resistance genes started to emerge, it became clear that we needed to change how we used antibiotics. For the food animal industry, this meant limiting the antibiotics allowed for use in food-producing animals, eliminating the presence of antibiotic residues allowed into the food supply and investing in education and research concerning the use of antibiotics.
In 1982, the Food Animal Residue Avoidance and Prevention Program was developed through a partnership between the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, UC Davis, NC State University, the University of Florida and the University of Illinois. This program has led to legislation related to antimicrobial use in food animal production, such as the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act and Title 21 as well as the formation of the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank (FARAD)—a database used to determine which drugs are allowed in food animals and how to prevent the presence of drug residues in food products.
Research has shown that antimicrobials are used more frequently in veterinary medicine than in human medicine. If we are talking strictly about quantity, then this is true. However, this does not take into account the difference between pets (like dogs and cats) versus food animal species (like beef, dairy, sheep, goats and poultry). For food animals, only a limited amount of the available antibiotics is allowed to be used. Antibiotics of human importance are prohibited altogether.
Drugs approved for use in food animals are required to list a “withdrawal period” on their label. This is the minimum amount of time it takes for the drug to clear the animal’s blood and bodily tissues after administration. These withdrawals ensure that no animal enters the food supply chain with antimicrobial residues present if the producer follows proper protocols.
So, what if an animal treated with antibiotics slips through the cracks, a timeline is mistaken or a withdrawal period is ignored? The USDA inspects animal carcasses as they pass through processing facilities for antibiotic residues. Carcasses or products that test positive are disposed of and regulatory action is often taken against the producer.
All of this to say that the animal products that reach the grocery store have been tested for antibiotic residues and passed. That means none of the meat you find in the grocery store should have antibiotic residue at all. Now, we're sure that some of you are thinking, "What about those labels you mentioned earlier?" Many companies add claims to their labels to point out that their product is antibiotic free. Their goal is to make their product seem like a more healthy or eco-friendly choice, when in reality, all animal products sold in the United States are free of antibiotic residues. Check out our video on greenwashing to learn more about misleading uses of terms on food labels.
However, the claims “no antibiotics ever” or “raised without antibiotics” have a different meaning. They indicate that the animals used to produce that product did not receive any antimicrobial products from birth to processing. This may seem to be a positive for the prevention of antimicrobial resistance, which the World Health Organization recognizes as "an increasingly serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society." But it raises a few questions. If animal products are already free from antibiotic residues, is it worth paying more for a product from an animal that never received antibiotics? If this product is produced without antibiotics, what does the company do instead when it has sick animals? Does that protocol ensure a standard of animal welfare that makes you comfortable? These are just considerations to go deeper into what’s behind the label's claims, ensuring that you’re truly making a decision that aligns with your values.
The limit on antibiotics allowed for use in food-producing animals has prompted a wider acceptance of other types of products that promote animal health and growth to make up for the loss of antibiotics. While not medicines or designed to kill viruses like antibiotics, our poultry products can be used to improve poultry health and immunity. With improved health and immunity, the birds are less susceptible to disease—whether or not they are treated with antibiotics.
Bridging the Gap
We live in a world where the discovery of one man has given us the capability to efficiently battle disease in both ourselves and the animals we depend on for a consistent food supply at a much higher standard than was possible before. However, this ability comes with several layers of responsibility.
The use of antimicrobial drugs should be used to improve animal well-being and welfare but with a constant concern for the potential negative impact on human and animal health. This task has been made simpler over time with the institution of strict regulation and oversight but still remains an integral part of animal husbandry.