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There is no problem with selective antibiotic use on farms to treat individual animals. In fact, using antibiotics in this manner is an essential part of good animal husbandry. It is the “subtherapeutic” or “nontherapeutic” use of drugs that has created major risks to public health. If you have the opportunity to speak to local animal farmers to see if they meet your standards, there are at least two questions about antibiotics worth asking: 1) whether they use antibiotics or antimicrobials to treat individual animals when necessary (this is good), and 2) whether small amounts of these drugs are given to all of the animals on a one-time or ongoing basis—that is, subtherapeutically (this is the problem).
Many media sources define nontherapeutic antibiotic use as “the practice of feeding antibiotics to healthy animals in order to increase overall productivity.” That’s mostly true, but here are some key points about the use of drugs on factory farms that are underexplained in mainstream media:
Consumers want to avoid not just antibiotics, but also the larger class of antimicrobial drugs.
Claims that nontherapeutic antimicrobial use involves giving drugs to “healthy animals” may or may not be correct.
Antibiotic and antimicrobial-free meat is not necessarily more humane.
Want to understand more about antibiotics in animal production, including how it contributes to drug-resistance and pandemics? Check out Antibiotics and Agribusiness.