The Veterinary [Student] Perspective: Is Antibiotic-Free the Way to Be?

Go to the meat refrigerator in any grocery store, and you’re guaranteed to see it: the organic meats section. Littered with happy-sounding-phrases like “antibiotic free” and “free-range,” it makes you as a consumer feel happier about the choices you’re making both for your own health and for the sake of the animals you’re consuming.

Organic labeling is one of the many ways producers convey "antibiotic free" to the consumer.

Organic labeling is one of the many ways producers convey “antibiotic free” to the consumer.

But, does antibiotic-free really mean that it’s less cruel to the animals? And does it have any impact on your health as a consumer? I’m going to guess that the main concerns of someone who chooses to purchase antibiotic-free animal products are as follows (not necessarily in priority order):

  1. Antibiotic resistance from widespread overuse
  2. Welfare concerns for the animals
  3. Health concerns about human ingestion of antibiotics in food

While all of these are valid concerns, and great things to consider in all of our purchasing choices, I hope to shed some light on the fact that it is not as cut and dry as “antibiotics are bad, and antibiotic-free is good.”

  1. When we imagine antibiotic use in the animal industry, most people immediately jump to the practice of low-level antibiotic use for increased growth in production animals. This is a concern, especially in terms of antibiotic resistance, and in fact, the FDA has given out a new set of regulations and recommendations (click to read a Q&A page from the FDA) in order to decrease this practice. The new strategy focuses on “medically important” drugs for human health, among others, in order to combat growing incidence of antibiotic-resistant infections.
  2. Although organic labels like to convey the image of happy, healthy animals that never experience a bad day in their lives, this isn’t always the case (in organic OR conventional production). In fact, animals in organic situations are at risk for increased suffering if they do get sick because the farmer is not allowed to use any antibiotics, at all. Instead, they have very limited choices: they can sell the animal to a conventional farm where it can get the treatment it needs and enter the conventional production chain, they can keep the animal and hope that it gets better on its own (in some cases leading to days or weeks of unnecessary suffering), or they can send it to slaughter, hoping that it will not be condemned (deemed unfit for consumption) because of the illness.Now, let’s imagine the same animal on a conventional farm. It becomes ill, and the farmer is allowed to treat it with antibiotics with one caveat- if it is a dairy cow, its milk may not be sold for a certain amount of time after its course of antibiotics is completed, to avoid contaminating the milk, and if it is a meat animal it must go through a withdrawal period before slaughter. Of course, this farmer may also choose to not treat the animal, depending on the nature of the illness, and it may end up at the slaughterhouse as well. But the fact is the farmer has the option of treating the animal and giving it a shot at full recovery from the disease, and is not pressured to let the animal suffer as it tries to battle its illness on its own, in hopes that it will recover and continue to produce.
  3. As far as antibiotic residues in food, I have already touched on this above where I talked about the withdrawal times required before an animal treated with antibiotics is allowed to have its milk or meat processed and sold. USDA inspectors are constantly testing suspect animals (and their food products) for antibiotic residues, and farmers are penalized for not complying with regulations. For this reason, it is extremely unlikely that any noticeable amount of antibiotic residue is present in the foods you eat, even if they come from farms that use antibiotics.

Now, my purpose in writing this isn’t to bash the organic industry, or convince everyone that industrialized agriculture is the way to go. In fact, there are pros and cons to both types of production, and there are examples of good and bad farming practices in each modality. My point is that the “antibiotic free” movement is in many ways misguided. I think that we should instead be pushing for judicious and responsible use of antibiotics in all production animals, rather than the absence of antibiotics in the niche market of organic farming. The entire “factory farm” vs. “smallholders” debate is way more complicated than either side wishes for you to believe, and trying to label antibiotics as “always bad” or “always good” just doesn’t work.

One comment

  • Enjoyed your blog and points well taken. I wonder if or how consumers can find out if the meat or milk they are purchasing is from farms that use low dose antibiotics.

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