How do I know my meat and milk are safe? Why do farmers use antibiotics? Is animal ag concerned about antibiotic resistance? There are many questions and misconceptions about antibiotic use in animal agriculture. So, we’ll go break them down and clear them up.
Are My Meat/Milk/Eggs Antibiotic-Free?
All meat, milk, and eggs at the store are free from antibiotics. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) uses science-based testing and monitoring programs for animal products to ensure safety. These protocols are routinely evaluated to ensure they can detect trace levels of antibiotics before they reach the market. The product is discarded if a violation is found and never makes its way into the food supply. Violations can be traced back to the farm of origin, and farmers can face penalties, pay fines or lose their contract/market entirely.
“Antibiotic-Free” labels are misleading since all meat, milk, and eggs are inspected by the USDA to ensure safety and wholesomeness before arriving at the store. It’s illegal to sell products that violate these standards. Imported products are also held to these high standards. Virtually all milk tested negative (99.99%) for antibiotic residue in 2019, and more than 99.5% of meat tested negative in 2018. Any positive products were discarded.
Why Do Farmers Even Use Antibiotics?
Like humans, animals can get sick or injured even when under the best care. We can get ill or injured just by living our lives too. Antibiotics help treat and prevent the spread of illness. They’re only used when necessary as they’re too expensive to waste. Farmers work closely with veterinarians to make animal health decisions and prevention plans. Farmers care about their animals because it’s the right ethical and moral thing to do. Happy, healthy animals grow better and produce more high-quality products; thus, animal welfare is also paramount economically.
After an animal is given an antibiotic, there’s a necessary withhold time. A meat withhold is how long it takes for the antibiotic to leave the animal’s system before it can be harvested. A milk withhold is how long it takes for the antibiotic to leave the animal’s system before the milk is safe for human consumption and no longer must be discarded. Farmers follow medicine labels and directions from their veterinarian to determine this timeframe. On-farm treatment records are an essential part of this too.
What Regulations Are in Place to Ensure Antibiotic Stewardship?
Farmers follow Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations and veterinary guidance to make sure they’re judiciously using antibiotics while promoting high animal welfare and food safety levels. For over 40 years, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine has been approving animal medicines and establishing their uses, dosages, withhold times, and safety standards based on scientific research. As of January 2017, veterinary oversight is required for antibiotics deemed necessary for human medicine, and medically important antibiotics in feed and water have been phased out. The use of medically necessary antibiotics in animal agriculture declined by 33% from 2016 to 2017. Starting January 2023, a new regulation is enacted where certain animal medications are changed from over-the-counter status to requiring a veterinary prescription.
What about antibiotics in feed?
A Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) is necessary for farmers to feed medicated feeds (feeds with medically necessary antimicrobials) therapeutically. VFDs require an established Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship (VCPR), which means that the veterinarian has a working knowledge of the farm (client) and their goals and has responsibility for medical judgments for the patients (animals). Credit: Animal Agriculture Alliance
What About Animals “Never Treated with Antibiotics”?
Some animal products, such as organic, may be labeled as “never treated with antibiotics” or “raised without antibiotics.” This means the animal happened never to need antibiotics. People who raise animals for this market can still use antibiotics if necessary, but the treated animal is marketed through a conventional channel after the withhold time has passed. While these animals no longer qualify for the “raised without antibiotics” or “organic” label, they still provide safe, wholesome, nutritious, and antibiotic-free products. These practices are just another option for consumers.
Severely restricting or prohibiting antibiotic use in food animals would make it more difficult for farmers and veterinarians to have the tools to provide high-quality care for their animals. Healthy animals are critical to a healthy, safe, and sustainable food system. Antibiotics are one tool for ensuring animal well-being and health. Biosecurity practices, vaccination, high-quality nutrition, rapid diagnosis, and good welfare practices are all preventative measures. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! But sometimes you need a cure, and sometimes antibiotics are the best tool for the job. Reducing the need for antibiotics through prevention and effective alternative practices rather than simply banning antibiotics balances animal welfare, health, and antibiotic stewardship.
What About Antibiotic-Resistant “Superbugs”?
Antibiotic resistance develops when bacteria continually evolve to better face challenges to their existence, such as other bacteria and microbes, environmental elements, and antibiotics. It’s a public health concern as we need to make sure we have effective antibiotics for treating diseases. The primary cause of antibiotic resistance is overuse and misuse in human medicine, which is an area the CDC is working to address. Most antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” are unrelated to animal agriculture. It’s about a 1 in 1 billion chance that treatment will fail due to resistant bacteria from animal ag. Animal agriculture still takes antibiotic stewardship seriously because we want to ensure antibiotics remain effective for treatment in our animals.
Different classes of antibiotics affect bacteria differently. Certain types kill bacteria in one way, while others kill totally differently. Antibiotics within the same class tend to kill bacteria similarly. So, a particular strain of bacteria may be resistant to one but not to others. Antibiotic stewardship involves choosing the right antibiotic that will be effective against the disease-causing bacteria with the correct dosage to prevent resistance from developing. There is little overlap in the antibiotics used in human medicine and animal agriculture. Only about 0.3% of veterinary antibiotics are of the same class as those used in human medicine, and those are only ever used to treat diseases. The most common antibiotics in animal agriculture are rarely used in human medicine and vice versa. The most used class in animal ag (tetracyclines, 44%) are rarely used in humans (4%) and mostly just in acne cream. The second most commonly used antibiotics in animal ag (ionophores, 30%) are never used in human medicine and are not known to promote resistance to medically important human antibiotics. Credit: Animal Agriculture Alliance
Antibiotics are an essential tool for a safe, healthy, and sustainable food supply. Farmers take antibiotic stewardship seriously while supporting animal well-being and human health. Strict regulations and inspections are in place to safeguard our food system and ensure all meat and milk in the store are antibiotic-free.