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.
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.
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.