My Thoughts on Antibiotics and Food

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By Emily Paster

Let me begin this post by saying that I am serious when I say that these are my thoughts on the issue of antibiotics in farming. I speak for no one but myself. And I am by no means an expert on this topic. I am not a scientist, a veterinarian nor a farmer. I am a simply a concerned consumer.

I am fortunate in that, through my blog, I have had unique opportunities to ask my questions about antibiotic use in animal agriculture directly to scientists, veterinarians and farmers. Most recently, I attended the latest in the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) series of Food Dialogues, which took place in New York City on November 15. One of the three panels that USFRA presented that day was entitled "Antibiotics and Your Food" and featured a diverse group of panelists, including two large animal vets one who is also a dairy farmer and one who works for the American Veterinary Medical Association; an Iowa pork producer; a pediatric nutritionist; and Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union. The panel was very informative and I encourage you to watch it for yourself here. I will also share with you my impressions.

Before I get into my thoughts on antibiotics and food, I want to disclose that I was at Food Dialogues in New York as a guest of the USFRA. I was actually there to help judge the Faces of Farming and Ranching contest, a nationwide search for five farmers or ranchers who will have a unique opportunity to share their stories with audiences throughout the country. These farmers and ranchers were a passionate, inspiring group of men and women, old and young, from South Carolina to Oregon and everywhere in between and I loved hearing their stories. I encourage everyone to check out the finalists and vote for your favorites between now and December 15. I promise that you will enjoy hearing from this interesting and knowledgeable group and they may even change your image of what a farmer is. Because I was in New York to judge the contest, my travel was paid for by USFRA and I was compensated for my time.

However, even though I was at Food Dialogues under the auspices of the USFRA, I am not on any particular side in this debate. I do not have an ax to grind. I am neither pro conventional agriculture and anti-organic or the reverse. I am simply a consumer who cares deeply about the quality of my food, food safety, nutrition, equal access to healthy food for all, sustainability, and animal welfare. USFRA did not ask me to write about my experience at Food Dialogues, nor is the organization paying me for anything other than my work as a guest judge. These thoughts are truly my honest impressions. And I may get some things wrong. If I do, I hope someone will tell me — in a civil manner of course.

We are all familiar with antibiotics. We take them ourselves; we give them to our children and our pets for infections such as strep throat or sinusitis. Maybe you or someone you love has battled a more serious infection and has need antibiotics to survive. My daughter Zuzu had a rare infection as a newborn and was hospitalized for six days. The antibiotics that she received likely prevented her from being permanently disfigured. So, we all know that antibiotics can do tremendous good.

Many of us also know that scientists and doctors are concerned about antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, which seem to be increasing. The concern is that we will not have effective treatments for these bacteria going forward. There are many theories about why these resistant strains of bacteria are on the increase, such as doctors overprescribing antibiotics or patients not finishing courses of antibiotics.

There are also some scientists who believe that the use of antibiotics in agriculture has contributed to these resistant strains of bacteria. Let me stop right there to emphasize this point. It's really important that we understand what the concern is when we talk about antibiotics and food. The concern is NOT that there are antibiotics in the meat we eat or the milk we drink. Animals that are being killed for food or cows that are milked cannot have antibiotics in their systems. The FDA tests for that. (The FDA only tests for a limited number of drugs, of course, which may raise concerns for some people.) The law requires that an animal that receives antibiotics for any reason cannot be used for meat or milked for a mandated period of time to allow the antibiotics to work through their systems. In short, we are not ingesting antibiotics in meat or milk.

The concern of consumer advocacy groups like the Consumers Union is that the use of antibiotics in agriculture is contributing to the increase of resistant strains of bacteria. Now, to understand this concern, it is important to understand how antibiotics are used in agriculture. In conventional agriculture, antibiotics are used both to treat sick animals and also prophylactically to prevent disease and to promote growth.

I'm going to pause here for a minute to discuss the difference between conventional and organic meat and milk. Organic milk and meat comes from animals that are never treated with antibiotics. That means that if a cow on an organic dairy farm develops mastitis — a common infection in animals that are nursing, including humans — the farmer cannot treat that cow with antibiotics if he or she wants to continue to milk that cow once the cow recovers from the infection. (No responsible dairies, conventional or organic, would continue to milk a sick cow.) I have asked numerous sources what happens to the cow in that instance and I haven't gotten one clear answer. Some people say that the farmer can hope the infection clears up on its own; or the farmer can treat the cow with antibiotics but then has to sell her. I still am not sure what happens. I wrote a lot more on the difference between conventional and organic milk here if you are curious.

Even those scientists and activists who want conventional agriculture to reduce its antibiotic use acknowledge that it makes sense for farmers who want to do so to use antibiotics to treat sick animals, just as it makes sense to use antibiotics to treat sick people. (Of course, it is important to understand and factor in the wide-ranging effects that antibiotics can have on the so-called good bacteria that is part of everyone's biome. The October 22 issue of The New Yorker contained a fascinating article on how little we understand about the role bacteria plays in our health.) Their concern is about the antibiotics given to animals to prevent disease and promote growth. As panelist Jean Halloran asserted, the concern is that this use of antibiotics is contributing to resistant strains of bacteria.

The farmers and vets on the panel dispute this assertion and claim that there is no proven link between this prophylactic use of antibiotics in animals and the rise of so-called resistant super-bugs. They argue that the use of antibiotics to prevent disease and to promote growth enables them to raise animals in a more efficient manner, which is both more sustainable and leads to reduced costs for the consumer. They also dispute the notion that farmers are giving drugs willy-nilly to their animals and point out that antibiotics are expensive. Farmers have every incentive to use them wisely and indeed can only give antibiotics to their animals under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Where does that leave the consumer? Probably confused. I still am. But here's my take-away. Resistant strains of bacteria are a real concern for us all. We all need to do our part to ensure that antibiotics are used responsibly. We shouldn't demand antibiotics for every sniffle and when we do genuinely need a prescription for antibiotics, we should follow the instructions on that prescription.

As for food, if you want to buy organic milk or meat for whatever reason, please do so. But let's all understand that there are no antibiotics in conventional milk or meat. Conventional meat and milk are safe products and no one should feel bad for buying them. I personally think that it is an acceptable and even commendable practice to treat animals with antibiotics when sick, as conventional farmers do. I don't know much about animal welfare, but it seems potentially cruel not to treat a sick animal.

Do I continue to have concerns about the use of antibiotics as disease prevention or growth promotion? I do. While I am not convinced that there is hard proof that this use of antibiotics has contributed to the rise of resistant strains of bacteria, I find it plausible that it has done so. And I found many of panelist Jean Halloran's arguments that we can produce safe meat and milk without a significant increased cost while reducing our use of antibiotics to be convincing. In short, it seems to me that benefits of reducing our use of preventative antibiotics in animals outweigh the costs. But I continue to have many questions and I will continue to explore this controversial topic.

Do you have concerns about how antibiotics are used in agriculture? Do you worry about resistant super-bugs? If so, have you changed your behavior as a result?

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