With Subway’s recent announcement that it is planning to phase in “antibiotic-free” meat over the next decade, it seems the latest food fad has arrived. Led by environmental groups and Internet bloggers, food activists are pressuring restaurants to make these commitments and are simultaneously duping an unaware public into being unnecessarily scared about their food.
Unfortunately, the marketing departments that are patting themselves on the back for this allegedly progressive pledge are forgetting one thing: Going “antibiotic-free” is regressive for the animals under the care and stewardship of farmers and ranchers.
Farmers and veterinarians use antibiotics to treat, control and prevent disease in animals. Withholding antibiotics from animals is not only inhumane, it is counterproductive for everyone. Judicious use is the key to keeping animals – and people – healthy.
To call some meat “antibiotic-free” is a misnomer. In order to ensure the food supply stays free of antibiotic residues, there are legally mandated withdrawal times for antibiotics used in food producing animals. Antibiotics get processed out of an animal just as our bodies process and eliminate medicine we take.
According to data from the National Residue Program, which monitors meat for traces of chemicals and drugs, the regulations are working. More than 99.9% of random chicken, beef, and pork samples tested between 2009 and 2011 met federal standards. Any meat not meeting standards can be pulled from the marketplace.
Some activists blame the resistance on animal agriculture, but studies have shown that human misuse is a major cause. The Mayo Clinic says, “The overuse and misuse of [human] antibiotics are key factors contributing to antibiotic resistance.” And according to the CDC, up to 50 percent of all the antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed or not optimally prescribed. Nearly a third of the antibiotics used in farm animals aren’t even used in humans.
We should also look to Europe’s experience with antibiotic restriction. Fifteen years ago, Denmark banned the use of antibiotics in farm animals for prevention of disease. Denmark’s experience hasn’t shown that restricting farm-animal antibiotics is a good way to fight antimicrobial resistance in bacteria. In reviewing Denmark’s ban, the World Health Organization commented that it “appears not to have affected the incidence of antimicrobial residues in foods or the incidence of human Salmonella, Campylobacter, or Yersinia infections in humans.” And the 2014 edition of DANMAP, Denmark’s program for antibiotic surveillance, notes, “consumption of meat may currently be considered an insignificant source for the human infections” of a strain of resistant E. coli.
Denmark subsequently saw a 223 percent increase in the use of antibiotics for the treatment of disease over the next decade, according to the Animal Health Institute. That’s the other cost to the so-called “antibiotic-free” meat movement: More sick animals. That’s to be expected, just as we’ve seen the spread of measles as the unscientific anti-vaccine movement has run rampant on the Internet.
In Denmark, however, farmers are at least still allowed to use antibiotics to treat disease. The “antibiotic-free” movement demands no antibiotics ever—even to treat sick animals. Not only is that inhumane, but it could increase the risk of humans getting ill by increasing illness and bacteria in animals.
The decision-making about whether to use antibiotics on a farm is best left to veterinarians and farmers, with proper testing from regulators. By supporting the judicious use of antibiotics, we can maintain the efficacy of the human antibiotics we have and uphold our responsibility to provide good welfare for the 10 billion farm animals in our care. Antibiotics are an important tool to treat and prevent disease to keep animals “free from pain, injury and disease,” one of the internationally accepted Five Freedoms upon which our common understanding of animal welfare is based.
Antimicrobial resistance is a public health issue that requires cooperation and collaboration among a wide variety of experts. It should not be a space for shrill voices to cry for a mandate to ban antibiotics in animal or human medicine—or for feel-good marketing that will cause animals to feel ill.