Proposed Federal Law Restricting Antibiotic Use in Livestock Stirs Controversy

On June 10 the Vet Blog discussed a defeated bill that aimed to restrict non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in California livestock. Although the issue has...


On June 10 the Vet Blog discussed a defeated bill that aimed to restrict non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in California livestock. Although the issue has been tabled in the Golden State, a proposed federal law has taken over the limelight.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

A New York congresswoman is trying to rally support for a federal bill that would restrict antibiotic use in food animals just months after a similar measure tanked in California.

Despite being voted down in Sacramento, a proposal that bans feeding antibiotics to cattle, hogs and poultry to increase their growth seems to be gaining momentum in the nation’s capital, where the Obama administration has condemned the practice.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that as much as 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy animals. Conventional farmers and ranchers routinely feed antibiotics to their herd to help the animals use their food more efficiently and bulk up faster. They say the medication also helps ward off pathogens that could sicken or kill their livestock.

But scientists and doctors fear that the overuse of these drugs makes them less effective in fighting bacteria in humans and animals. Microbes that develop immunity to the drugs will multiply and flourish.

As I mentioned in my original post on this subject, I was surprised to learn in veterinary school that antibiotics are added to livestock feed in many instances strictly to cause food animals to grow more quickly. This economically motivated use of antibiotics is, in my opinion, unwise. Non-medical use of antibiotics could contribute to these medicines becoming less potent in sick animals and people. This activity does not pass the “smell test”. Nobody wants to eat meat that has been pumped with drugs.

Nonetheless the proposed law has its critics.

[S]ome ranchers and farmers argue that the measure would probably endanger livestock, flood the market with imported meat and raise the cost of producing food.

It is true that eliminating antibiotics from animal feeds could lead to higher food costs. But I suspect many ranchers (and food animal vets) oppose it because they fear it will dent their profits. I believe their logic is flawed.

I am not an expert in economics. But it stands to reason that if all producers of a good utilize a product (in this case, non-therapeutic antibiotics) that increases efficiency, then no single producer gains a competitive advantage. Competition will pass the savings from the efficiency to the consumer. This means that no rancher really benefits financially from antibiotic feed additives.

Except for those who decline to use them.

Many consumers already have turned to antibiotic-free meat and poultry because they want products that have been raised naturally and out of an industrial farm setting.

Many people (I suspect the number will be ever-growing) are willing to pay a premium for antibiotic-free meat. Producers of this product can charge a premium.

These producers in my estimation are the ones who have the most to lose from the proposed law. But I have a hunch they are not the ones most vocally opposing it.

Biological sense, or biological nonsense?

Some well-respected veterinarians have joined the ranks of people opposing the proposed law. And some of them are using logic that, in my opinion, is highly spurious.

“From a biological standpoint [banning antibiotic feed additives] doesn’t make sense,” said John Maas, a professor at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and a cattle expert. “Instead of using small doses to prevent illness, you’re going to have to increase the dose 100 fold when the animal gets sick.”

Typically using antibiotics to control disease can cut potential illness by 25 to 50 percent, [said Michael Apley, a clinical pharmacologist, veterinarian and professor at Kansas State University]

If antibiotic feed additives truly prevent disease, then why limit them to livestock? Drs. Maas and Apley, do you add penicillin to your pizza or tetracyline to your turkey? Do your compliment your childrens’ lunches with tylosin in order to prevent disease?

I didn’t think so.

Elimination of antibiotics from livestock feed is inevitable. It is time to embrace this fact and move forward.

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