Vet's Opinion

A “What If” Question On Antibiotics

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If supermarkets were to decide to sell only meat from animals not treated with antibiotics, then what would become of the animals that did receive treatment?

“Meat on Drugs” is a report released by Consumer Reports (CR) in June that centers on antibiotic use in food animals. It also addresses a broad scope of other issues.

CR used the often-quoted report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which analyzed FDA data and estimated that “80% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are used on animals.” I guess this statement has been repeated often enough that it is now fact, no matter how inaccurate it may be.

It’s disappointing, though, that “the most trusted source for product buying advice and ratings” – CR – didn’t offer a more critical evaluation of the statement before using it as the foundation for its narrative. Very little is said of antibiotic overuse in humans, but the phrase “factory farm” is used with some frequency throughout the report.

The report does offer a great deal of useful and valuable information, however. For instance, it offered some very accurate information on what various labels mean, such as organic, natural and grass-fed. And consumers were surveyed about their level of concern regarding antibiotic resistance and whether the stores they patronize offer meat raised without antibiotics. Likewise, stores were surveyed to determine whether they offered meats raised without antibiotics.

Whole Foods was the only store that offered only meat and poultry raised without antibiotics. Whole Foods offers an interesting model, and at the urging of a BEEF reader, I recently visited one to see what it had to offer.

It was a pleasant experience, and I’d encourage all producers to visit a Whole Foods store. I would recommend, however, that if you do go, take your pickup – not your Mercedes. This will make it much easier to find your vehicle in the parking lot when you leave the store.

There are several issues that are troubling in the CR report, but possibly the most troubling statement comes at the end of the executive summary, where Consumers Union (CR’s advocacy division) makes the following statement (emphasis added): “Consumers Union recommends that all supermarkets move toward offering only meat and poultry raised without antibiotics, to be a part of solving a major national health crisis. We also urge consumers to buy these products wherever they can find them.”  

Hmm. All supermarkets offer only meat and poultry raised without antibiotics? Is this realistic? I have little doubt that this would, indeed, reduce the use of antibiotics – but is that really a good thing?

Whole Foods, which has an established “never, ever” policy, states that “If an animal becomes ill or is injured, we require that the animal is treated and then removed from the Whole Foods Market meat supply.”  One would have to assume that a similar policy would have to be developed if all supermarkets offered only meat and poultry raised without antibiotics.

If there are no supermarkets that will sell meat that has been treated with antibiotics, what is to become of the animals that do receive treatment? I suppose the family that raised the animal could have it processed for their own consumption. But what if 10 of their calves get sick? Perhaps they could just go out to pasture until the farmer’s freezer is empty, but it would take several years for a typical family to eat their way through that many cattle. If treated calves can’t be marketed for consumption, what does CR suggest we do with them?

Broad, sweeping recommendations such as these sound appealing to the uninformed. Dropping the blame on agriculture is both a politically expedient and very popular approach, but it comes with extensive unintended consequences. It’s very disappointing when consumers’ “most-trusted source” comes up with such a poorly thought-out solution.

Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, is director of animal health for Cattle Empire, LLC, of Satanta, KS. He can be reached at drdave@cattle-empire.net.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

Amy Patrick (not verified)
on Jul 8, 2013

I appreciate your comments on the Meat on drugs. It would be nice to have the correct statistic on the number of animals that have been treated with anti-biotics and the safety of those animals. I am dealing a lot of "green" people at my university and I need hard data to combat the misinforamtion.

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What's Vet's Opinion?

Three top U.S. veterinarians provide tightly focused discussion of specific beef cattle disease and welfare topics.

Contributors

Dave Sjeklocha

Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, is operations manager of animal health and welfare for Cattle Empire, LLC, Satanta, KS.

Mike Apley

Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is a professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

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