Antibiotics and Industrial Livestock Production: Not Just Superbugs

The FDA is finally issuing regulations and recommendations on use of antibiotics in livestock! They are unfortunately voluntary regulations but considering the FDA proposed doing this in 1977 but got shutdown by Congress, this is good news. It’s taken more than thirty years for the FDA to officially say that many uses of antibiotics in meat and dairy production are dangerous.

The recommendations apparently don’t exclude use for preventing disease so it’s unclear to me how this will significantly reduce use of antibiotics. Tom Philpott posted a good overview of why these regulations are probably inadequate. But I’m still glad to see the FDA say something official.

Most of the news emphasizes the risk that prophylactic use of antibiotics in livestock risks creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which might transfer to humans. There are surprisingly few documented cases1 considering the extent of use. If we gave humans antibiotics in the same manner as livestock, you would be taking regular low-dose antibiotics, almost like vitamins. We regulate antibiotic use in humans so that they are (hopefully) only used when medically necessary to cure disease. But we administer antibiotics to livestock for a different reason: to support concentrated, intensive animal production. That has downsides beyond human health.

Animal Welfare: Many who swear off “factory farm meat” do so because of a concern for animal welfare. Industrial livestock production requires the animals to be held in tight quarters. Hens, for example, often have their beaks trimmed to keep them from pecking their neighbors because they are packed so tightly. Dairy cattle often get infected udders due to the conditions. Cattle in intensive operations suffer from diseases of the feet from standing in manure. Antibiotics are given to the animals in a preventative fashion: the close quarters and filth would certainly cause infections without them, either killing them or reducing yield.

Waste is Wasted: The waste produced from industrial animal operations results in huge lagoons of waste that are regulated under the Clean Water Act. Most of this waste ferments, unused, breeding unknown micro-organisms, seeping into local water tables until it is finally used as fertilizer. Occasionally it floods out of containment. Nearby residents live with interesting aromas. That waste is literally going to waste. The waste is eventually used as fertilizer but in modern operations there is so much that it is applied too liberally, leading to runoff. We could be burning the methane for energy production and then processing the waste (including better fertilizer2).

Industrial Monocropping: The large number of animals raised in intensive operations require huge amounts of feed. Most industrial livestock aren’t fed grass or whatever it is the animal would eat on that idyllic farm we think of as children. Cattle, for example, are fed a lot of corn3. Pigs are fed soy and meat by-products. A major driver of monoculture fields of corn and soy is demand from livestock operations. The largest single use of the US corn crop is for animal feed45. Our current industrial corn and soy production methods require a lot of inputs (water, pesticides and fertilizer) and monoculture agriculture presents challenges for pest management. Reducing demand for industrial meat would reduce demand for corn and soy. This would mean less fertilizer and pesticide runoff6 and less water consumption7.

Reducing antibiotic use in industrial livestock farming could force major changes in how animals are raised. Americans are already eating less meat. I really hope the FDA can make these regulations work (or make them mandatory if voluntary fails). Less intensive animal farming could significantly improve land usage throughout the United States. I’m not certain that limiting antibiotics to medically necessary reasons would significantly reduce the number and size of intensive operations, but I certainly hope it does.

Update at 18:55 PDT: I didn’t describe very clearly exactly what the FDA is trying to regulate. Specifically, they are trying to stop the use of human-relevant antibiotics for non-medical purposes. A very common non-medical use is currently to encourage growth (for some reason low-dose antibiotics seem to encourage rapid growth). Unfortunately, antibiotics used to treat animals “at risk of getting a specific illness” is not being restricted (even voluntarily). Since this use can justify regular low doses of antibiotics (since many animals are at risk of illness due to the crowding), it doesn’t seem likely these regulations will actually significantly decrease use. My hope is the FDA will eventually expand the rules.

  1. The book Superbug summarizes the cases.
  2. And apparently bedding for dairy operations.
  3. Also, bizarrely, cattle are often fed meat and bone meal.
  4. See World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates Report from the USDA.
  5. The second is ethanol production which has its own problems.
  6. Runoff into the Gulf of Mexico results in a dead zone where sea life is reduced severely.
  7. A significant amount of corn is irrigated from the Ogallala Aquifer.

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