When thinking about buying your meat products, what are some things that you are concerned about? If I had to guess, somewhere on the top of that list is that you do not want any antibiotics in your meat. That is on the top of my list too! But it does not stop me from eating the livestock that I raise and have administered antibiotics to, and here’s why!
What does “No Antibiotics” Mean?
The USDA food safety and inspection service allows the term “No antibiotics” or “Antibiotic Free” when sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics. At D’Agata’s Fine Family Farm, we do not use the label “Antibiotic-Free” because we do administer antibiotics judiciously to our livestock. In a few paragraphs I will explore how we do this and why it is important that we do so, but first I want to explore what the label “Antibiotic-Free” means.
There are never antibiotics in the meat you consume
What many people think this label means is that there are no antibiotics in the meat that you are purchasing, and it implies that any meat without this “Antibiotic-free” label may possibly contain antibiotic residue. However, there is never any antibiotics in ANY meat you purchase (label, or no label). What “Antibiotic-free” is really stating is that the animal you are eating was never treated with any antibiotics in its lifetime. But, never giving an animal antibiotics is not the only way to guarantee that there are no antibiotic residues in the meat you consume. Any antibiotic administered to an animal has a specific dosage to be recognized and a strict withdrawal period that is required by law before the animal can be processed for meat. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) conducts a specific monitoring program to ensure that antibiotics are eliminated from any food animal’s system and that no unsafe residues are detected in meat that will be converted to human food. FSIS inspectors are specially trained to identify any pathology or conditions that warrant sampling as well as randomly select animals for testing based on the volume of a plant’s production. Any carcass used as a subject for testing is retained by the USDA and an in house Kidney Inhibition Swab test is conducted. If the results are negative (meaning there is no detection of antibiotic residue) the carcass is passed for human food. However, if the test results are positive, 2 lbs of muscle is collected from different areas of the carcass as well as 2 lbs of the liver. These are then sent to the lab and screened for the types of antibiotics used and determined acceptable or unacceptable in terms of residue levels and safety. Any animal that has unsafe levels of antibiotic residue is denatured and condemned. Then, to ensure public safety and to apply a corrective action as well as awareness, trace-back is conducted to find the producer of the animal containing illegal residues and the producer is put on a violators list and closely monitored. This is all done to ensure that no unsafe antibiotic residues are in any meat you consume whether it is labeled “Antibiotic-free” or not.
So the issue does not lie in the idea that you may be eating meat that contains antibiotics and that it could harm you, so why all the fuss over a label stating “No Antibiotics”? Well, there has been a lot of fear and speculation about antibiotic resistance and also the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in swine and poultry. It is very important to use antibiotics responsibly because while they are very good at treating health issues and can be super effective against certain bacteria, they may not work to control other bacteria and this can create harmful antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin, was once quoted, “There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily under-dose himself and by exposing his microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drug making them resistant.” This is why it very important to use antibiotics appropriately and with veterinary over-site so it is ensured that the correct antibiotic is used to treat the correct bacteria and so that dosage is correct and all medications are fully completed. Resistant bacteria growth happens when the bacteria are challenged but not destroyed, and this can occur when antibiotics are used irresponsibly. Another source of controversy is the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. The use of hormones for growth promotion is illegal in swine and poultry, but producers have found that some antibiotics can help destroy certain bacteria in the gut and allow animals to convert more of the feed they eat to muscle resulting in more rapid growth. However, this use of antibiotics was found to be inappropriate and in 2012 the FDA asked producers to discontinue the use of antibiotics for growth purposes. I agree with the FDA’s standing and D’Agata’s Fine Family Farm has never used antibiotics for growth promotion in our livestock.
Antibiotic use ensures the welfare of our livestock
While there can be downsides to irresponsible antibiotic use, there are also many downsides to not utilizing any antibiotics at all. Responsible and caring farmers need antibiotics to treat their animals when they are sick. Just like you and me and our pets, livestock can fall ill or get injured. This is an inevitable part of life and no matter how hard you try to prevent it, it happens. This is why we need doctors and veterinarians and medicine and it is truly a blessing that we have these tools to use when the unexpected or unwanted happens. I first want to point out that antibiotics and veterinary care are NOT cheap. At D’Agata’s Fine Family Farm, we do everything we can to make sure that our animals are healthy and stay healthy so that they do not need medical attention. We feed appropriate foods with the correct nutrients, we make sure our animals have a clean and ready supply of water, we reduce pest invasions, make sure our animals have adequate space and exercise and we keep our pens and pastures clean. However, sometimes nature gets the best of us and our animals can become sick. Maybe one of our pigs bit and wounded another pig and that pig got an infection, or maybe a cow had a hard time calving and became susceptible to an infection. Or maybe they just got a cold, just like something you or I could get because of naturally occurring germs. If we were not allowed to use antibiotics in these situations our animals would suffer, they would be in pain, and yes, they may pull through and survive, but they would have had to fight the illness with no medical attention and be in pain until they were healed. As a farmer who has the tools to treat these illnesses, I do not think that it is ethical to let my animals suffer because I want a label on my products that could potentially appeal to people and allow me to sell more meat. I want to raise my animals responsibly and part of that responsibility is treating them when they are sick! I also have a responsibility to you, the consumer, to sell you meat that was raised humanely and that is healthy.
Vigilance is key
On a small farm such as ours, we have the ability to oversee our livestock each day. During feeding times each animal is observed to make sure they are lively and actively eating. We have the ability to notice any abnormalities or injuries quickly because we are with our animals every day. Therefore, this allows us to treat those ailments quickly and appropriately. We are are able to work with our veterinarian and judge appropriate antibiotic use in our livestock and we keep strict records on what they have received and when their withdrawal period has finished. We not not administer antibiotics to all our livestock, just the ones who need it. And we do not use the label “antibiotic-free” on any of our products because it does not suit our farm management style and would not be ethical for the welfare of our animals.
terms and definitions
From the North American Meat Institute
“Antimicrobial resistance — the property of bacteria or other microbes that become resistant to the effects of a drug after being exposed to them. This means that the drug, and similar drugs, will no longer work against those bacteria. If resistant bacteria enter the food supply, and if they are not destroyed by proper cooking, drugs normally used to treat people infected with those bacteria may not work.
Antibiotics — any of a large group of chemical substances, as penicillin or streptomycin, produced by various microorganisms and fungi, having the capacity in dilute solutions to inhibit the growth of or to destroy bacteria and other microorganisms, used chiefly in the treatment of infectious diseases.
Withdrawal period — the period before slaughter and processing when an animal may receive no antibiotics or other medications to ensure time for antibiotics to be effectively eliminated from an animal’s system.
Antibiotic residue — an antibiotic residue is a portion of antibiotics that remains in the body after antibiotic use has been discontinued. USDA operates a residue monitoring program to ensure that meat and poultry are safe and that residues are not a public health issue.”
sources and related articles
North American Meat Institute: https://www.meatinstitute.org/index.php?ht=d/sp/i/102248/pid/102248
USDA National Residue Monitoring Program: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/data-collection-and-reports/chemistry/residue-chemistry
Landers, T. F., Cohen, B., Wittum, T. E., & Larson, E. L. (2012). A review of antibiotic use in food animals: perspective, policy, and potential. Public health reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974), 127(1), 4-22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3234384/