Subway announced today that it will serve meat without antibiotics in its restaurants. As a loyal Subway customer, this crushes me. Here's a little secret: all meat is antibiotic free. I feel very passionately that Subway made a rushed choice that fed into fear tactics from radical minority groups rather than searching for the facts about the farmers that raise their food. Moving to antibiotic free is nothing more than a marketing ploy to raise prices and draw consumers through the door under false pretenses. Ask farmers about what they are doing on their farms and you will quickly learn how ridiculous these claims of antibiotic abuse are. Advocate Ryan Goodman does an excellent job in his blog to give resources and information to better tackle this topic but I really feel that I need to share my personal experience about this issue as well as a snap shot into the possible outcomes of fully removing antibiotics from farmers' toolboxes.
I have been blessed with experience in several facets of animal agriculture. First as the daughter of a dairy and pork producer. Yes my dad raised milk cows (sold milk and beef) as well as raised pigs. I learned at a very early age that prevention was the key to disease control. My dad worked hard to make sure his animals were in clean environments, under minimal stress, and vaccinated. Antibiotics were a measure of last resort when animals became ill. In fact, I seldom remember dad using medication in the feeds for our pigs. Even today my dad will try several other methods of health care before using antibiotics. Antibiotics are expensive, especially when prevention is the best choice. Even 25+ years ago my dad was worried about antibiotics in the food supply. I remember him dumping milk from cows that were treated and holding pigs back from sale until they were healthy. You see, farmers have an intense pride in the animals that they raise, they only want the best for their consumers and their families (yes we ate meat from the animals on our farm).
In college I worked on the campus swine research farm. During my 3 years we did many experiments for graduate and PhD students involving feed medication and using organic or natural options to help pigs stay healthy. The take home message from those experiments was that antibiotics will always be a method of last resort for farmers. They are expensive and they need to be carefully used with the strict advisement of a veterinarian. The natural and organic additives, such as oregano and garlic did yield some positive results as well, which helped open my eyes to the fact that we can learn much from our organic farmer friends. There are other alternatives to help improve animal well being, and sometimes it is as simple as a good environment and good care.
After graduation I worked at a local feedmill which sold feed to livestock farms ranging in size and scale, raising everything: sheep, beef, dairy, swine, goats, chickens, turkeys, and even llamas. At that time we were beginning to see the start of increased regulations for feed additive antibiotics (2005-2009). I remember the paperwork required to give feed grade antibiotics to a group of pigs or cattle. The veterinarian needed to sign off on the medication with the reason it was being given. At the mill we needed to keep samples of all feed manufactured and equipment used to mix and make treated feed needed to be flushed clean before being used to make untreated feed. Every day we did a detailed inventory of all medication at our mill, documenting how much was used, when it was delivered, what truck delivered it, and where it was delivered to. Every year the list of medications that we could use became shorter and shorter, as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) removed them. Each year farmers lost tools in their tool boxes. Feed additive antibiotics needed to be removed from the feed weeks and sometimes months before animals could be sold for meat. Why would these farmers use feed grade antibiotics? The answer is easy when you have an illness going through a population of animals. It becomes easier to treat the whole herd via feed rather than stick each animal with a needle every day, and it's definitely easier than watching the animals die needlessly. Truth be told, our organic farmers also used antibiotics, but that was the method of last resort, and obviously those animals were sold in non-organic markets. But when it comes to humane animal care, even organic producers know that they might need to treat an animal, for the animal's best interests.
Finally, as a dairy farmer I have first hand experience every day working with dairy cows whose milk is sold and the occasional cow is sold to be beef. All milk is antibiotic free. Do you know what happens if we treat a cow with antibiotics? We dump that milk for days, sometimes weeks; if it's not perfect we pitch it! The cow's milk never reaches the tank until she has been tested for antibiotics. We take antibiotics so seriously on dairies that we test every tank, tanker, and silo of milk. Yes, we do sell cows for meat and guess what? We take our meat sales just as seriously. We usually go above and beyond the regulations to make sure our cows are antibiotic free when sold for meat. Often we keep cows up to 3 months past their last treatment of antibiotics, first to ensure they are in good health, secondly to make sure they produce high quality beef and thirdly to ensure for a fact they are free of antibiotics. We are terrified of getting caught selling a positive cow, so much so that we test urine on cows (antibiotics can be detected just like a drug test at work!). Food safety is on the forefront of our goals.
Antibiotics are a tool on our farms, but a tool to help ill animals heal and recover. Prevention has always been a priority for farmers, but to remove antibiotics from our arsenals would put us in a very difficult position. As consumers continue to buy into the fear, I am very concerned livestock producers will lose a tool and be forced to watch animals die from simple illnesses which a couple days on antibiotics could have saved. Livestock farmers don't take dead animals lightly. I can confess to crying on numerous occasions when I lost a cow or calf. We take our jobs very seriously. Please, get the facts from farmers before buying into the fear. It's in everyone's best interests to keep diversified tools to help farmers achieve the best practices possible for their animals. Meat has always been antibiotic free, and it always will be.