AVMA and CVMA Embarass Themselves With Stance on Antibiotics in Farm Animals

 |  Jun 10th 2009  |   5 Contributions


People instinctively fear change, even if the change in question will benefit them in the long run.

Consider the case of California's Humane Farming Initiative, a ballot measure that passed by a landslide last November. The law states that by 2015 farm animals must be allowed enough space to stand up, turn around, and stretch their limbs. Pigs, egg-laying hens, and veal calves will benefit most from the new law.

When the initiative passed, some farmers and food animal veterinarians squealed louder than the pigs the law was designed to help. A few of them protested that the law will end agriculture in California.

I beg to differ.

I believe that California's farmers will adapt to the new regulations. When the rest of the world implements similar measures (and it will), California's farmers will be ahead of the game. The law will help California remain a dominant agricultural powerhouse.

A sea change has occurred in the public's beliefs about animal welfare. Opponents of the Humane Farming Initiative couldn't sense that change, but I believe that California's farmers and food animal vets will benefit from it.

Many food animal veterinarians and two major veterinary organizations now have failed to notice a different sea change. They have taken postions on an issue that places them squarely on the wrong side of history. The organizations are the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). I am a member of both organizations.

At issue is the routine use of antibiotics in livestock.

When I was in veterinary school, I was surprised to learn that antibiotics are added to animal feeds for reasons other than disease control or prevention. Feed manufacturers may add antibiotics (such as tylosin) simply because they can cause animals to grow slightly more efficiently. This reduces the total amount of feed needed for each animal. It reduces the time to slaughter. It increases profit margins, in theory. In practice, since so many farm animals receive antibiotics I suspect that the competitive advantage farmers gain from the medicines is wiped out.

I doubted in veterinary school, and I still doubt, that adding antibiotics to animal feeds simply to increase efficiency by a few fractions of a percent is worth the risks.

What are the risks? Excessive use of antibiotics is linked to antibiotic-resistant bacteria that may pose health risks to animals and people. And if antibiotics aren't withdrawn from feed for an adequate length of time before slaughter, residues of the drug can end up in meat (controls are in place to prevent this, but it has been known to happen nonetheless).

Let's face it: using antibiotics simply to make animals grow more rapidly does not pass the smell test. That's how I see it, and that's how I'm betting more and more people are going to see it. (Consider the backlash against rBST in dairy cows. In my opinion, rBST is safer than antibiotics.)

Here is my prediction for the record. In 30 years, antibiotics no longer will be used to promote efficient growth in food animals. Nobody wants tylosin in his turkey sandwich.

Yet the CVMA and the AVMA, pandering to food animal vets who have failed to sense the sea change, are proudly and actively on record in favor of using antibiotics to promote animal growth.

The CVMA recently published a newsletter in which it bragged about its role in defeating a bill in that would have required school districts to purchase meat from animals that were not fed antibiotics.

At around the same time, the AVMA sent me a link to a legislative action alert. The AVMA appears to be working to generate opposition to a bill in the US senate that would restrict antibiotic use to disease treatment and prevention.

It's too bad. In my opinion, the elimination of antibiotics from animal feeds is inevitable. The CVMA and AVMA should be leading the way on this issue. Instead, they are standing myopically in the way of a change that I believe could benefit farmers and food animal vets in the long run.

And speaking of myopically attempting to prevent the inevitable, tomorrow we'll talk about people who support breed standards that call for ear cropping and tail docking.

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