Antibiotics Debate: Let’s Not Forget About the Animals

First We Feast

Another week, another campaign targeting a national restaurant chain on the issue of antibiotic use in animals raised for food. As noted by Reuters and a bevy of other media outlets, In-N-Out Burger, with 300 restaurants in the West and Southwest, was in the crosshairs this time as a coalition of 50 groups and individuals, including Consumers Union, Food Babe and the CALPIRG Education Fund, sent a letter calling on the restaurant chain to change its beef sourcing policies.

The restaurant’s response began with an expression of concern for the animals. “Just as humans sometimes need antibiotics for their health, cattle sometimes need antibiotics to ensure their health and welfare,” said Keith Brazeau, In-N-Out’s VP of Quality, according to the Orange County Register. Similarly, a Wendy’s spokesperson earlier this month said at a beef industry gathering. “The best beef comes from healthy, well-cared for animals. A sick animal needs to be treated and you won’t hear differently from us.”

The role antibiotics play in high quality animal care is sometimes lost in the complex and often confusing debate on animal agriculture’s contribution to antibiotic resistance. It’s important to acknowledge the public health concerns on the issue, but let’s not forget about the animals.

Concern over the use of antibiotics in agriculture might seem like an issue that has surfaced in the last decade or so, but it’s not new. The FDA established a task force of scientists in the 1970s to perform a comprehensive review of the use of antibiotics in animal feed. As noted by the late Scott Hurd, whose career included serving as Deputy USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety, the controversy seemed to die down or lose momentum after a series of hearings on the issue. Asked why, he said, “We showed it was good for the animals.”

Hurd feared that overly restricting antibiotic use could result in failure to treat or delays in treatment that could lead to animal pain and suffering.

Antibiotic resistance is a serious public health concern that everyone needs to take seriously. Food producers should openly acknowledge that animal antibiotics need to be used responsibly to minimize agriculture’s contribution to antibiotic resistance.

It’s a fact that leading animal health companies recognize the concern about antibiotic resistance and are now making antibiotics available only for treatment and prevention of disease — not growth promotion. By the end of the year, antibiotics important to human medicine will only be available under a Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), essentially a prescription from a veterinarian.

But, as acknowledged by Wendy’s and In-N-Out Burger, preventing disease and treating sick animals by using antibiotics is the right thing to do. When an animal is sick with a bacterial infection, it deserves antibiotic treatment. Veterinarians take an oath to protect human and animal health, and antibiotics are a tool that helps them honor that obligation.

The emergence of pathogens that are resistant to multiple antibiotics is something that everybody should respect, investigate and respond to appropriately. But overly restricting or eliminating antibiotics from food animal production raises serious animal welfare concerns that need to be thoroughly examined.