Debating Antibiotic Use In Livestock

Food Dialogues panel tackles a hot issue with a bit of logic, and insight from producers and opponents.

Published on: Nov 15, 2012

Jean Halloran, Consumer's Union, had the opening statement in the second Food Dialogues Panel in New York City, this week and she characterized the use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry production as part of a "crisis situation with antibiotics." Halloran notes that antibiotics are losing their efficacy and there are problems with resistant bacteria that lead to illnesses that cannot be cured.

"We discovered that 80% of the antibiotics used in this country are used for animals, and primarily for growth promotion and disease prevention," Halloran says. "We need to see this change."

The panel was the second of three held as part of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance series of Food Dialogues. This series was held in New York City and covered media, antibiotic use and biotechnology use as well.

Debating Antibiotic Use In Livestock
Debating Antibiotic Use In Livestock

Halloran's 80% figure became a bone of contention for the diverse panelists on the program including a veterinarian from the American Veterinary Medical Association; a farmer-veterinarian, a pediatric nutritionist and an Iowa pork producer. When challenged on the 80% figure, Halloran noted the assertion was based on numbers reported by manufacturers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Consumers Union is dedicated to removing antibiotics from livestock use - except for treatment of disease - and is pushing a program where at least half the super markets in the United States sell meat as part of a meat without drugs campaign. The idea is to drive the supermarkets to demand such a product.

The discussion, which was lively at times, took a good, close look at the issue at hand. Antibiotics have a role in preventing disease, but when asked by moderator Ali Veshli, CNN's chief business correspondent, what they would do if antibiotics were banned for all but treatment uses tomorrow, the responses from the pork and dairy producer were similar: They would worry about the welfare of their animals first.

~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~Says Dr. Karen Jordan, a dairy farmer and veterinarian, Brush Creek Swiss Farms, North Carolina: " We would also go to the prevention part of our operation and gear up at a greater rate and use the tools we have. I would be concerned about what the animal's welfare would be like, which to me is the saddest thing."

For Barb Determan, a northwest Iowa pork producer, Heartland Marketing Group, "I have the same concerns as Karen (Jordan), what does this do to animal welfare."

That meat without drugs campaign that CU is pushing brought some interesting questions. What to do with animals that do get sick and need to be treated. Would selling that animal after it is safely past the withdrawal time be the right thing to do? "We might need a new label for meat from animals that were treated for illness," she notes.

Treatment only approach
Halloran contends that the push to a treatment only model would reduce the antibiotics used in livestock to 15% rather than the 80% they contend it is today. That assertion raised some questions from Dr. Christine Hoang, a veterinarian with the American Veterinary Medical Assocation: "You have to look at the unintended consequences of such a move," she notes. "Would there be more treatment of sick animals if you weren't using preventive antibiotics."

Says Keith Ayoob, pediatric nutritionist, Albert Einstein School of Medicine: "Surely treatment would rise because those preventative antibiotics must have some benefit, or why would they use them."

~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~Hoang notes that the industry is working closely with the FDA to create a prescriptive approach to antibiotics, and that process continues. And the industry is transitioning away from sub-therapeutic uses of antibiotics as well - focusing instead on preventive treatments and more.

Price difference
There was a discussion on the panel about the cost of food with and without antibiotics. Consumers Union contends that the cost difference isn't that great, as little as 10% to have food without the antibiotics - based on a survey done by CU members of poultry prices. Hoang points out that the poultry industry is vertically integrated. That means birds in a non-antibiotic environment, if they get sick, are often moved to a flock where they are not sold as antibiotic free - the cost to the producer is minimal.

In a larger system where there is no alternative selling channel for treated animals the costs would arguable be higher. Halloran explained the costs are not that much higher and that consumers can substitute lower-priced cuts - instead of skinless, boneless chicken breasts they could buy chicken legs.

Ayoob responded: "I'd love it if you would be with me when I try to explain that to a patient." He notes that many of his patients would find a small price increase in food a significant burden. "And most patients don't see the benefit of the antibiotic-free meat. They don't see the value of a greater good."

The panel reached no conclusions - but the dialogue brought to the forefront the key issues facing the livestock industry. Halloran at the CU did make a statement that may have surprised some of the farmers in the room when it was noted that we need to get ready to feed 9 billion people by 2050.

"That is a completely specious argument," she says, noting "currently there is enough food to feed the current population, except perhaps in Africa." Her contention is there isn't really a food shortage, but instead a problem of delivery and supply management. That differs considerably from what many think is true about the nature of food production in this country.

This is the third set of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance Food Dialogues held since the group formed just over two years ago. The effort is a move by 70-plus organizations to help tell the farm story to the consumer. You can learn more by visiting www.fooddialogues.com, and you can watch replays of those dialogues as well.