Antibiotic Use in Industrial Farming

A look at antibiotic use in large-scale farming, how safe it is, and a brief comparison of conventional meat products versus organic.

Antibiotics have existed in farming for more than 50 years to treat, control, and prevent infectious diseases. In that same time the population has more than doubled and food production has increased dramatically. Improvements in technology, biosecurity, animal genetics, and better use of antibiotics have made the dramatic increase possible. However, are these advances safe? Are antibiotics in large-scale food animal facilities creating antibiotic resistance in humans?

Experts weigh in on antibiotic use in farming

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) put together an internationally renowned panel of experts to study the effects of antibiotic use in agriculture. The 2006 study entitled Antimicrobial Resistance: Implications for the Food System found that the risks from using antibiotics in animal agriculture are extremely low and the social benefits outweigh the miniscule risk of antibiotic resistance. The study also concluded that the antibiotic estimates have shown “a general downward trend in total antibiotic use between 1999 and 2004.” Moreover, human antibiotic use is estimated at 32.2 million pounds, where animal agriculture is estimated at 21.7 million pounds.

Another surprising fact this study found is that antibiotic use is not limited to large-scale farming. A survey done by the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) found that a similar percentage of small producers and large producers reported using antibiotics in feed.

The Danish Experience

The Danish pork industry agreed to a voluntary ban on the use of antibiotic growth promotants (AGPs). The ban ran from 1998 and was withdrawn for all swine in 2000. The Danish government instituted the voluntary ban due to an increase in antibiotic imports and concern from the scientific community. The assumption was that by banning AGPs it would decrease antibiotic use in agriculture along with the risk to human health from bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

The ban did not decrease antibiotic use, though. Instead, a significant increase in therapeutic antibiotics was necessary to battle the rising health issues. Farmers reported a 25 percent increase in mortality due to illness. Unfortunately, the negative impacts of the ban are still not fully resolved. Furthermore, the ban had no proven benefits on human health. In fact, the World Health Organization found that since the ban there has been an increase in resistance to tetracycline in Salmonella.

What would this ban mean to the U.S.? According to research done by the National Pork Board, “Over 10 years, the projected cost of such a ban would exceed $700 million.” In addition, differences between Denmark and the United States would cause even more problems in the United States than where found in Denmark.

Organic vs. Conventional meat

Studies show that, nutritionally, organic meats are no different that conventionally raised meat products. They are also equally safe to eat. The only differences between the two are the growing, handling, and processing methods used. Moreover, several studies have proven that bacteria resistant to antibiotics can be found in both organic and convention meat products. Bottom line: organic and conventional meats are equally safe; however, the niche market does open consumers up to more choices.

Conclusion

Are antibiotics safe to use in farming? Yes. The use of antibiotics on farm animals is prohibited unless the drugs are proven safe and approved by the FDA. The FDA also mandates strict withdrawal times for antibiotic use for food products. These withdrawal times are also drug specific. Furthermore, to safeguard our food, random and on-going samples are tested to ensure compliance with withdrawal regulations. Producers found in violation of these regulations face stiff penalties.

The United States has the safest food supply worldwide. Studies of antibiotic use are on going to ensure the health and safety of U.S. consumers. Though some producers may slip through the cracks, regulations are in place and enforced to seal up those cracks. Antibiotics also play a key role in keeping our food supply and us safe, healthy, and affordable.

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