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Focus on Agriculture

April 24, 2013

Livestock Farmers Feeling the Pressure

By H. Scott Hurd, DVM, Ph.D

There are many pressures on livestock farmers today. Many of these pressures are not the typical economic and resource challenges faced by all businesses, but additional political pressures related to antibiotic use in food production.

Setting aside the politics, all scientific risk assessments published to date have shown a negligible risk to human health from resistant bacteria resulting from food animal antibiotic use.

Those that argue against the use of any antibiotics in livestock raised for food should consider that animals not treated for and exhibiting residual effects of illness are more likely to cause foodborne sickness in humans.

Further, failure to prevent or treat animal illness causes unnecessary animal suffering and death. It’s also important to note that infectious diseases occur in both modern animal confinement facilities as well as in outdoor group housing situations.

Every farm with animals is both a maternity hospital and a day care. Animals need medicines at times, just like kids do. This becomes a moral and ethical issue. At what point will we deny treatment? It’s not right to withhold veterinary care from animals. Antibiotics for animals are needed because illnesses can move quickly through populations and livestock cannot “stay home” when they are sick.

“Meat without drugs” or “antibiotic free” meat may lead to very negative consequences to animal health. In fact, meat produced without drugs may very well mean “animals without medicine.”

A relatively new area of scientific inquiry is the question of whether animal health is quantitatively correlated with public health risk. Slogans promote the concept that “healthy animals make safe food” and it is a concept we all “feel” good about. However, the research is just beginning and much more is needed. One interesting study showed an increase in human illnesses from non-resistant bacteria caused by eating broiler chickens with residual effects of illness due to denial of antibiotics.


Scott Hurd is associate professor and director of the Food Risk Modeling and Policy Laboratory at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Ames, Iowa, and former deputy undersecretary for food safety at the Agriculture Department.