This year, two major restaurant chains announced that they would be phasing out the purchase of animal products from farms that use antibiotics to promote growth. Fast-food giants McDonalds and Subway will join the ranks of Panera Bread and Chipotle, which have been marketing products as “antibiotic-free” for years. There is serious consumer push-back against antibiotic use in livestock, even though it is illegal to send animals to slaughter within the prescribed withdrawal period for an antibiotic. Some argue that antibiotic residues are still ending up in their food, but the argument from the scientific community is that antibiotic use in livestock leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, a growing public health problem.
At a news conference in mid-November, the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that antibiotic resistance is one of the greatest threats to health today. WHO points to the use of antibiotics in animals as a major factor in increasing antibiotic resistance. The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, based out of London, predicts that antibiotic resistance will cause 10 million deaths by 2050. The Review agrees with WHO that farm animal use is the main contributor to increased resistance. Other organizations, such the American Farm Bureau Federation, state that the antibiotics used in agriculture are largely not similar to antibiotics used on humans, and as such, antibiotic use in livestock is not the main reason for increased antibiotic resistance. Generally, however, both consumer and agriculture industry groups recognize that there is some non-judicious use of antibiotics on food animals, and that antibiotic resistance in humans is a serious threat to public health. Increased federal attention to voluntary antibiotic phase-out programs for animal producers is a sign that antibiotic resistance is a growing political concern in the U.S. We could see heavier regulation of animal antibiotics in the near future.
So what does all of this mean for your livestock production business? Regardless of the merits of a connection between agricultural use of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance, there is a rapidly growing demand for products from animals that are never, or at least only therapeutically, treated with antibiotics. There is vast potential to increase demand for your products if this can be accomplished on your farm. Premiums may also be available for “antibiotic-free” products.
As this production year draws to a close for many animal producers and is in mid-swing for others, it’s worth considering how you can reduce antibiotic use in livestock in order to take advantage of this current market trend. It may decrease antibiotic resistance in the long run as well, which is good for both animals and humans.