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Antibiotics 101

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.

  • A wide range of drugs are given to factory-farmed animals and antibiotics are just one class of drugs in the larger class of antimicrobial drugs.
  • Antibiotics have attracted headlines because of the health risks they pose but other antimicrobial drugs may pose the same risks.
  • Meat labeled “antibiotic free” may still come from animals given other drugs.
  • Conscientious consumers should know that the purchase of poultry labeled “antibiotic free” may still indirectly promote the use of antibiotics in order to sustain specialized breeder farms.

Claims that nontherapeutic antimicrobial use involves giving drugs to “healthy animals” may or may not be correct.

  • Animals on factory farms, in aquaculture, and on feedlots are often in a chronic state of ill health.
  • In many cases, such as in the contemporary poultry industry, the very genetics of animals destines them to have inadequate immune systems.
  • Antimicrobials are typically given to sickly animals in order to make them more profitable.

Antibiotic and antimicrobial-free meat is not necessarily more humane.

  • Because the real problem is in the genetics of the animals and the crowded conditions under which they are raised, being drug-free does not guarantee good conditions for animals.
  • There is some evidence that antimicrobial free poultry meat can come from farms where animals suffer more.

Want to understand more about antibiotics in animal production, including how it contributes to drug-resistance and pandemics? Check out Antibiotics and Agribusiness.