You learned it in freshman biology: Penicillin was originally created by accident, but has since been hailed as one of mankind’s greatest discoveries. Today, antibiotics are used to treat everything from bronchitis to tuberculosis. For decades, small doses of antibiotics have been fed to livestock; when used in feeds, they help maintain rapid growth and low levels of disease across herds, allowing for affordable food prices. However, controversy has recently erupted over concerns of antibiotic resistance and public health. Perhaps public opinion is driving the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recent decision to reconsider the regulation of antibiotic use, even before facts are definitively established.
As the popular press has been oversimplifying for the past few weeks, over two-thirds of antibiotics in circulation today are fed to animals. Media outlets claim, through the use of scare tactics, that, the dairy industry is using antibiotics as a way to cut costs and allow animals to survive in an environment that is not healthy. “If we didn’t pump our livestock full of antibiotics, they would get sick ... But rather than raise them in a way that doesn’t make them sick, but costs somewhat more, we just keep them on constant doses of antibiotics. And then we eat them.”
It is a common misconception that meat and dairy products sold today have high levels of antibiotics present. It is important to note, first, that the FDA has many protocols and regulations in regard to use and presence of antibiotics in approved animal products. For example, established withdrawal times are defined, ensuring specific durations of time that must pass between ending antibiotic treatment and the animals’ entering human food supply. Milk is sampled for antibiotic residues each day; farmers are required to withhold milk from therapeutically treated cows, or their entire shipment can be discarded. Obviously, from an economic and business standpoint, it is not in the farmer’s best interest to allow milk to be processed with antibiotic residues. From a meat industry perspective, all beef sold in the United States is safe from antibiotics: The FDA has mandated standards for antibiotic residue presence in beef, which is regularly tested.
Safe, affordable food comes at a high cost for consumers, but one must understand that public health is of the utmost concern. Officials make every attempt to conduct risk assessments of antibiotics, especially those critical for human medicine. A smear campaign has been in progress to discredit the farming community for being “selfish,” disregarding public health concerns for profit. Today, a successful farmer must not only be a good businessman, but must also be respectful of public opinion; without the public, there would be no consumer base, no one to feed, and thus, no income. Many of the best farmers have advanced college degrees and are well aware of the business and biological impacts of the decisions they make. A large percentage of the agricultural sciences programs here at Cornell are producing people who will be leading this industry into the next generation.
European governments have attempted to ban antibiotics in feed. In a case study in Denmark, all forms of antibiotics were prohibited across pork production. The nation encountered severe and costly health problems in livestock. Because the antibiotic ban was only on feed additives, Danish veterinarians had no choice but to use therapeutic antibiotics — of the same class used in human medicine and of greatest concern for resistance. Ultimately, more antibiotics were used in direct contact with animals, meat had to be withheld longer and eventually cost the consumer much more than preventative measures would have. Safe meat comes from healthy animals.
As in the conflict with artificial hormones in milk, there are experts on both conflicting sides of this issue. Because of this uncertainty, not every operation uses antibiotics in their feed. It is important to keep an open mind, and understand that as a consumer, you have a right to purchase food of your own choice. In the same regard, before criticizing the livestock industry’s use of antibiotics — often of a form with different chemical and biological characteristics than those used in human medicine in the first place — please consider how drug resistant you are making your own, personal bacteria every time you walk into Gannett Health Services.
More often than not, when you walk in to see a practitioner for common cold symptoms, you will exit with a handy, fifty-plus dollar, cardboard pouch: “Z-pack,” or, a few pills of Azithromycin. Often, these drugs are given out like candy, without direct knowledge of origin of infection; equally as often, patients do not completely follow or finish the prescription, contributing to huge internal resistance towards the antibiotic. What if it is a more serious condition, and you are just fueling a bacterial infection to mutate and fight itself? That, too, is a public health issue worth thinking about.