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Ongoing Debate Over Farm Animal Antibiotics Provides Ongoing Opportunity for Vets to Look Foolish

In the USA farm animals routinely receive antibiotics in their food. There are two common reasons for this. Antibiotics sometimes are added to food because...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Sep 20th 2010


In the USA farm animals routinely receive antibiotics in their food. There are two common reasons for this.

Antibiotics sometimes are added to food because they promote growth. In certain instances adding antibiotics to animal feed can increase growth rates by a few percent. Those few percent should be convertible into profit in theory (although in practice they generally aren’t since antibiotics are used so universally).

Antibiotics also are used in some instances to prevent disease. Piglets, for instance, often receive antibiotics during weaning in order to reduce disease transmission during this stressful period.

I doubt that there’s anyone on earth who honestly thinks, in his heart of hearts, that it’s a good idea to give animals antibiotics simply to make them grow faster. Even the board members of corporations that own big factory farms probably know deep down that it’s a bad idea, even if they claim to support it.

The obviousness of this fact has led the Food and Drug Administration, congress, and several state governments to consider restricting antibiotic use on farms. The New York Times recently reported (free registration required to view link) on the matter. The article highlighted the debate that has developed around the subject of antibiotic use in farm animals. On one side of the debate are human health professionals (and organizations such as the CDC and the AMA) and believers in common sense. On the other side of the debate are factory farmers and organized veterinary medicine.

Veterinary medicine has a long history of ties with farmers. There is nothing inherently wrong with that; however, in this debate the veterinarians who support ongoing routine use of antibiotics in animal feed are not, in my opinion, upholding their duties to their patients and to human public health. (These duties both feature prominently in the veterinarian’s oath.)

Many experts believe that the use of antibiotics in farm animals could contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as superbugs. Some experts believe that most resistant strains of E. coli developed as a result of antibiotic use in cattle.

And how, I ask, does routine antibiotic use in animals help the animals themselves? A faster growth rate means a shorter time to slaughter. Antibiotic use in weaning piglets allows the animals to be weaned faster, sooner, and more stressfully.

Some vets and farmers claim that eliminating antibiotic use in weaning piglets would lead to increased disease in the stressed animals. That’s true; however, as an alternative to antibiotics the industry could consider weaning the piglets under less stressful circumstances and raising the price of bacon by a penny per package.

By aligning itself with the status quo, organized veterinary medicine is placing itself squarely on the wrong side of history. But readers should know that plenty of vets out there disagree with the stance taken by the veterinary medical associations.

Many European countries have eliminated non-therapeutic antibiotic use. The sky has not fallen in those places, and I know they’re not going back to the old way. We all know how this is going end.

The elimination of antibiotic food additives in the USA is inevitable. Why look foolish trying to fight it?