Let’s pretend that we’re sitting somewhere cozy, with big comfy armchairs, and something delicious to sip on. Let’s say it’s chilly outside–precipiation is up to you–but there’s definitely some fall colors action. Got that in your head? Great.
Because today, we’re going to visit about…antibiotics.
Yep. Those little guys. You hear a lot about antibiotics in the fall because kids are going back to school, little ones are going to preschool for the first time, Dan’s got a cough that he brought to the office so now everyone is sick, the weather’s cooling down, life is getting busier. And on farm and ranches, calves are being born or weaned, depending on the ranch’s calving schedule, and many are getting shipped to new locations, and being on top of herd health is ever-important. Plus, cows can get the sniffles, too!
So, here are some things about antibiotics that I hear a lot, and some things about those things. I apologize, this post is on the drier side, but I can only drum up so much hilarity and sarcasm for something as science-y and important as antibiotics.
70% of all the antibiotic use in the US is in livestock. This is true. But, remember: a cow weighs a lot more than a human, even a really big human. So, they’re going to need more antibiotics. It’s all about scale here. You need more antibiotics than your kid, a cow needs more antibiotics than you.
Using broad-spectrum antibiotics causes antibiotic resistance. I talked to a vet about this, and the way he explained it was the it’s not broad- or narrow-spectrum that matters, it’s the efficacy of the antibiotic. If an antibiotic is not meant to treat pneumonia, we won’t use it to treat pneumonia. If a broad-spectrum antibiotic will effectively treat, say, pneumonia, foot rot, and pinkeye, we can use it on any one of those things and expect it to do its job safely.
Edited to add: a microbiologist friend (that I used to nanny–so proud of her!) pointed out that using antibiotics at all–in humans or animals–is going to contribute to antibiotic resistance. Reducing their misuse in both humans and livestock is an imperative, and one that we take very seriously. Thank you for helping me be more clear here, Rhodes!!
Livestock use the same antibiotics that people do, so this is where antibiotic resistance comes from. There are some antibiotics that we can use in livestock and humans–like penicillin–but the most commonly used class of antibiotics in cattle (tetracyclines) are the least commonly used in humans, and 71% of the antibiotics used in cattle are either not given to humans at all, or hardly used at all. 38% are outright not medically important to humans. In the rare instance when we do use drugs like penicillin, it’s because it’s the best choice to knock out the bug in question, which is in the best interests of everyone (see above).
In feedlots, cattle are fed antibiotics to keep them from getting sick and to help them grow. No, vaccinations are used to prevent disease, and carefully formulated rations are used to help them grow. When an animal becomes sick in a feedlot, it is pulled out of the pen by a penrider, treated by a vet, and not returned to the pen until it’s well. Seriously. Also, the phrase “mass-treating livestock” sounds terrible, so that’s why the media uses it. Sometimes, an entire pen will be treated in cases where something really nasty and contagious has happened (someone showing up to the office with strep and coughing on the donuts, anyone?) but cattle are not fed antibiotics for funsies or for growth. In fact, the FDA has come out with guidance eliminating medically-important antibiotics (antibiotics often used by humans, too) from being used as growth promotants in feed and water. The FDA is also in the process of moving medically-important drugs that were previously over-the-counter to needing a vet’s permission to use.
If you eat an animal that has been fed antibiotics, you’re eating them too. I talked about this a few weeks back, but I’ll reiterate: Nope. Nope nope nope. Not a thing. Even if an animal was treated with antibiotics, you aren’t “eating” those antibiotics when you consume that meat. All antibiotics have withdrawal periods before an animal can be slaughtered to prevent residues from ending up in meat. USDA inspectors then test the carcasses at the packing plants to ensure that residual guidelines are strictly followed. There’s literally a National Residue Program for this, and programs for continuing producer education like Beef Quality Assurance. There’s also a publicly available list of producers who have more than one residue violation. It’s updated weekly, and the USDA will use it to take extra care to inspect meat from those producers. Cattle buyers also use it to know if any of their suppliers have residue problems so they can be extra vigilant or choose not to work with that supplier. It’s a big deal, y’all, and we take it very seriously.
Also: meat from animals not treated with antibiotics is not any healthier or safer for you to eat when compared to meat from animals that were treated with antibiodics. #science.
Antibiotics happen because other herd health management didn’t. Again, a resounding nope. Beef producers work very closely with vets and nutritionists to makes sure their herd is properly vaccinated and fed so they are in the best health they can be. Antibiotics happen because an animal got sick, despite our best efforts, and we need to help it get better because that’s the right thing to do. We all know that, no matter how hard we try, we sometimes get sick and need medicine. Cattle are the same. Also: did you know that producers often give a probiotic in addition to an antibiotic, especially to young animals? It’s the truth. Someone dared me to eat some once, buuuuut I didn’t. #fraidycat #notacalf
Basically, guys, we treat animals when they’re sick. It’s the right thing to do. If you see meat that is labeled as never having had antibiotics, that does not mean the animal was better or worse cared for than an animal that was given antibiotics, or that is it better or worse for you or for the environment. Sometimes it’s luck (or lack thereof), sometimes it’s the weather, sometimes it’s an animal’s immune system, sometimes it’s something else. Full stop.
That will do it for Part 1! It’s kind of a big subject.
More resources here, here, and here.