The Ethics of “Antibiotic-Free” Meat

A increasing trend in food today is selling “antibiotic free” meats, meaning the animal has never received an antibiotic at any point in its life. Spurred by misplaced fears of antibiotic resistance, antibiotic free meat commands a price premium in the butcher’s case. It is mostly for chicken that this sales pitch is utilized, but it is extending into beef and pork as well.

Two deer

As opposed to venison, which is pretty much always antibiotic free. Can you imagine trying to give an injection to a whitetail?

For most farm animals, making this claim would not be difficult. Using medically important antibiotics for growth promotion is going to stop on January 1st of 2017 (which was done voluntarily by livestock feed companies), so that is not an issue. With proper husbandry practices, animals usually do not get sick and warrant an antibiotic treatment, even in CAFOs.

But notice the underlined “usually” in the previous sentence. As I have previously written about, even animals raised under ideal husbandry practices that get lucky by experiencing ideal weather conditions sometimes get sick. Grass-fed, grain-fed, organic, conventional, natural–it doesn’t matter how they are raised, disease will happen. I know this because as a country veterinarian, I work with everyone that has livestock, from small hobby farms to farms with thousands of cattle. And it doesn’t matter how the animals are raised or how diligent you are in caring for them, on every single one of these farms animals sometimes get sick.

Treating sick cattle

Fun fact: Some of the healthiest cattle I’ve ever seen were on very large farms with thousands of cattle. Some of the sickest have been on small hobby farms. And I’ve seen the opposite as well. It’s not the size of the farm, it’s the people managing it that make the difference.

The fact that some animals will inevitably get sick combined with a price premium for not treating animals with antibiotics creates a conundrum. Does the farmer treat the animal and lose the premium, or not and hope it gets better on its own? Some animals will survive without treatment, and not every disease will actually kill the animal, but causes suffering and production losses. After putting pencil to paper, it may be more profitable to let the disease run its course than to administer an antibiotic if there is a premium for “antibiotic free” meat.

While every farmer I’ve ever worked with would chose the former option over the latter, having that premium creates a temptation to withhold treatment. And withholding treatment in turn leads to more animal suffering from disease. In addition, it makes the disease causing bacteria harder to control, which increases the chances of developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Lastly, it wastes natural resources, as sick animals still consume feed and water, but do not turn those resources into useable meat.

Granted, not every disease warrants an antibiotic. In addition, antibiotic free programs amplify the focus on preventative medicine, which is a good thing. However, a large number of livestock diseases require an antibiotic for appropriate care, and our current capabilities with preventative action are not 100% effective. Therefore as food consumers we have to ask the question, “Are we comfortable with providing an economic incentive to withhold medical treatment in food animals?”

This becomes even more challenging as “antibiotic free” meats gain a larger market share. If antibiotic free becomes the norm, the premiums will disappear, as other production premiums have over the years. It will instead be replaced by a price discount for treating animals. If the discount is significant, it creates a situation where it is economically more profitable to euthanize the animal for a curable disease than treat it. As my friend and fellow blogger Anne Burkholder put it in another post, the only option left is to put a bullet in the animal’s head.

It is essential as a society that we tackle the issue of antibiotic resistance. However, it must be approached in a manner that acknowledges the reality that we cannot prevent all livestock disease, and it is necessary to use antibiotics to cure some of those diseases. I would suggest we focus on further research into understanding antibiotic resistance in bacteria and ways we can enhance the immunity of livestock. Working to understand the situation is superior to creating potentially problematic ethical dilemmas.



10 responses to “The Ethics of “Antibiotic-Free” Meat

  1. Pingback: Is the US ready for Zika, and great trade debate continues – news the week of Aug 8 – Global Farmer Network™·

  2. As Jake knows all antibiotics have a withdrawal date and one has no withdrawal date. When animals are processed they have to be free of all antibiotic residues and hormonal implants or the $2000 steer is “tanked”. When the Dutch outlawed antibiotics, they used more antibiotics than before. The claims that meat is antibiotic and hormone free applies to all meats treated w/ or w/o antibiotics or implants thanks to the withdrawal period.

    • Thanks for that clarification Dr. Brewbaker. Yes, the blog post is only referring to what happens with the live animal, not the meat product, as all meat is certified antibiotic free. I’m actually working on another blog post right now to help explain this.

  3. Some very good points. Much of what you discuss also relates directly to the “organic” market. The ethics of forsaking 21st century veterinary medicine and making an animal suffer unnecessarily for the sake of an endorsing label is seriously questionable.

  4. It is my understanding that the whole “antibiotic free” movement is directed at CAFO’s and the routine introduction of antibiotics as a “preventive” measure because of the atrocious conditions that the animals are kept in. The treatment of an existing disease with antibiotics has never been an issue and is not a position taken by any of the organizations that I have followed. The facts are being distorted for grand standing effect and are in direct contrast to the truth and the efforts made to protect both the animals and the public.

    • Hi Michael! I actually work with pretty much every type of beef cattle farm, from acreage hobby farmers with one or two cows to CAFOs with a few thousand. I would have to disagree with your assessment of CAFOs in beef cattle. The cattle have a large area to roam in, a scientifically formulated diet that matches exactly what their nutritional needs are, and plenty of pen mates to interact with. Cattle aren’t complicated creatures–meet their needs and they do well.

      As for preventative antibiotics, I will prescribe them for cattle both in and not in CAFOs. It really isn’t the location, it is the situation that matters. Preventative antibiotic therapy in cattle is necessary at times because cattle don’t tell us when they are sick–we have to make a judgement call. Add to this that treating cattle too late with antibiotics means the efficacy of the antibiotic is greatly diminished, which greatly increases the potential for resistant bacteria to develop. I have the lowest case success rate with cattle that are not treated promptly, and most often this occurs with cattle on grass pasture because distance issues make it harder to identify the sick cattle as timely.

      Contrary to the media drumbeat, CAFOs play a critical role in environment conservation. By utilizing more intense farming methods, we are able to use less land, water, and other resources to produce beef. And this is not just my opinion. Renown conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund agree that we need to have intensified agriculture to preserve key wildlife habitat.

      If you’d like to learn more, I’d encourage you to take a look at other post I’ve made on this blog about conservation, both of antibiotics and of the environment. Antibiotics are just one tool cattle farmers and ranchers use in raising health cattle and delicious beef. You can always email me if you have any more questions as well.

  5. Pingback: How Do We Know All Beef is Antibiotic Free? | The Cow Docs·

  6. Pingback: You’ve Got Questions? We’ve Got Answers! | The Cow Docs·

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