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Antibiotics in Livestock: Time for Slimming Down the Herd?

It’s unmistakeable. Change is coming to the business of fattening up livestock and selling meat for human consumption. Many factors are bringing change, but antibiotics are in sharp focus right now. A report in Science calls for bold global action. The authors recommend caps on antibiotic use, reductions in meat consumption, and a user fee for veterinary antibiotics.

Meat producers use far more of these drugs in their animals than humans use. Roughly 80% of all antibiotics go into animals, most of it mixed into their food. It added up to 131,000 tons in 2013. Relatively little goes for treating animal diseases.

A Cheap and Messy Way to Produce Bigger Livestock

With these drugs mixed into livestock feed, animals grow fatter faster and can withstand harsh living conditions without getting sick. That means more meat per dollar of production costs.

But it also means the possibility of unintended consequences. Antibiotic residues from farming bleed into the environment and into the food supply. Research has yet to confirm or refute a hypothesis that these residues contribute to the growing burden of obesity and related diseases. Regardless, the idea has durable appeal.

Factory Farms or Superbug Factories?

How Antibiotic Resistance HappensLess controversial is the idea that feeding these drugs to livestock creates nearly perfect conditions for breeding antibiotic resistant superbugs. That’s a threat to both animals and to humans. If you breed superbugs in your livestock, it gets tough to keep them healthy.

Also adding to that problem is the threat to human health. Antibiotic resistance has grown into one of the world’s most pressing public health problems. Infections are becoming harder to treat. Antibiotics are becoming less effective. Infections with resistant superbugs can destroy a person’s health and lead to a painful death.

Growing Momentum for Action

Without a doubt, social pressures for action are growing. This week, San Francisco enacted an ordinance to require disclosure of antibiotic use in meat production. Grocers and meat processors say that transparency will be an unfair burden. Advocates say it will create more public awareness and pressure to solve the problem. Until now, consumers had no good source for this information

At the same time the National Resources Defense Council is keeping up pressure on restaurants. They are ranking chains based on their policies to reduce antibiotic use in meats they serve. Chipotle and Panera got an A. McDonald’s got a C+. What held them back is the lack of policies for pork and beef.

Applebee’s and a host of others got an F.

This much seems certain. The issue will continue to be hot for some time to come. Meat producers had better come up with a more sustainable plan for the future. Simply resisting change will not turn out well for them.

Click here for the report in Science and here for an interview with the lead author. For more on the San Francisco disclosure ordinance, click here. And for more on the NRDC report card, click here and here.

Cows! Photograph © Rockin’Rita / flickr

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October 6, 2017

2 Responses to “Antibiotics in Livestock: Time for Slimming Down the Herd?”

  1. October 11, 2017 at 10:40 am, John DiTraglia said:

    What’s the evidence that it makes animals grow faster and fatter. Obviously that’s a powerful motivation to the farmers and society. If it’s true maybe there are better ways. Why don’t antibiotics make people fatter?

  2. October 11, 2017 at 11:37 am, Ted said:

    For perspective, you might want to read this: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/12/obesity-antibiotics-microbiome/421344/