FDA issues draft on curbing antibiotics in livestock (feed)

Uh oh. This is going to get a lot people who raise livestock upset. And it should be of interest to everyone outside of agriculture, too.

The Obama administration is taking new steps toward restricting the use of antibiotics in hogs and other livestock.

The Food and Drug Administration cited concerns that the routine use of drugs to fatten livestock could lead to increased antibiotic resistance in humans. The agency issued a draft guidance document outlining its thinking that the drugs shouldn’t be used for growth promotion in animals and that veterinarians should oversee all use of antimicrobials on farms.

“Using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production purposes is not in the interest of promoting and protecting” human health, said Joshua Sharf- stein, the FDA’s principal deputy commissioner.

The agency is taking comment from the public and the industry for 60 days.


The issue is whether the routine use of antibiotic laced feed, a growth enhancing tactic which has been practiced for 40 years, also promotes antibiotic resistance in bacteria which affect humans.

Here is a bit of background on the issue:

The discovery that antibiotics could be used for prevention of infection and growth promotion was serendipitous. Veterinarians began administering antibiotics to sick animals in an effort to determine whether the “miracle drugs” that were saving human lives could also help livestock.45 These experiments led to the discovery that feeding animals small doses of the drugs not only inhibited diseases but also enhanced growth.46 This discovery led in turn to an agricultural revolution, with farmers—especially those in very large operations47—relying increasingly on subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to keep their livestock healthy and to promote animal growth.48

In the past three decades, agricultural use of antibiotics has increased exponentially. One article has estimated that in the past thirty years, farmers have increased their use of penicillin-type antibiotics in *PG47]farm animals by 600% and their use of tetracycline by 1500%.49 Recent statistical research continues to show an increasing reliance on the routine use of antibiotics for pigs and cattle.50 Larger operations also continue to be more likely to use antibiotics,51 and many rely on additives for periods of time in excess of ninety days.52

Part of the increase in antibiotic use is attributable to the declining effectiveness of the drugs as growth promoters. Over time, the amount of antibiotics needed to promote growth in farm animals has increased significantly. Some sources have suggested that “[r]oughly 10 to 20 times the amount used four decades ago are required to produce the same level of growth in the 1990s.”53 Moreover, even at concentrations approaching therapeutic levels, “the benefits of growth promotion are less now than those reported several decades ago.”54

The increasing use of antibiotics in agriculture has paralleled an astonishing growth in the use of antibiotics generally. In 1954 two million pounds of antibiotics were produced in this country; today more than fifty million pounds of antibiotics are manufactured every year.55 Only half of these antibiotics are consumed by human beings. Most of the remaining tens of millions of pounds annually are given to ani*PG48]mals.56 While some of these antibiotics are used to treat infection, the bulk is mixed into animal feed at subtherapeutic levels.57


This is probably a big mistake.

Cattle (and probably hogs, but I don’t know much about them) don’t really have all that long a life span. They can’t be exposed to antibiotics for very long terms the way people often are. Steers are typically butchered at somewhere around 18 months of age.

I don’t personally know of any rancher who uses antibiotics to promote growth, though I do know some who use growth hormones. I, myself, have sometimes used Vitamin B-12 as an appetite stimulant, because calf growth is very much affected by how much and what the calf eats. They’re not like people when it comes to growth rates.

But I also have never known a rancher; a cow-calf operator, who feeds antibiotics long-term. Normally, it’s only used in case of infection, though some use it for weaning or shipping to avoid stress-induced infection. But it’s never for very long, and it’s early on. Any rancher who feeds antibiotics to his herd long-term is a moron. They don’t give that stuff away.

There might well be an argument in favor of reducing antibiotic use for feedlot animals because they’re closer to being butchered. But I will say that requiring a vet for every infection in a cow-calf herd on the ranch is a recipe for disaster. Do those people not know how few large animal vets there are now? You call a vet out every time for a case of pinkeye and you’ll neglect the condition sometimes for days, and also raise the cost of beef. Ranchers have to be able to treat their own animals, and most do.

But I don’t guess this government cares how many expensive burdens it imposes on the citizenry. What will it be now, bootleg animal penicillin from Mexico?

If this government really wanted to deal with superinfections, it would look to people. You can buy any drug of any kind over the counter in Mexico, and most recent immigrants, legal or illegal, particularly the latter, do just that, and self-treat. Have a stomach ache? Take ampicillin for a day or two. Runny nose? Take Keflex tonight and decide tomorrow whether to take Amoxicillin instead. It’s just nuts.

I’m two generations removed from the farm, but I do take an interest in news affecting operations. I’m in the Midwest and its vital to our economy.

I’m not acquainted with how livestock is raised, and how common the use of antibiotic laced feed is. However, at a family gathering about 15 years ago, I brought up this topic and the growing concern about antibiotic resistance. Some of my relatives were stunned that such a practice happened, and others were outraged by the suggestion such feed be banned. So I quickly changed topics - I didn’t want to get folks upset at what was supposed to be a fun occasion. :o I probably should have taken advantage of the situation to learn more.

Yes, most folks who raise livestock are well-versed in looking after the health needs of their animals, including the use of veterinary medicines. This is necessary for economic reasons, but also for the practical reason of the shortage of large-animal veterinarians. News reports for the past 20 years or so have been pointing this shortage out. The overwhelming percentage of people training as vets want to take care of pets: the pay is better, the work is easier, and they can live in urbanized areas with amenities often not found in rural areas.

Yep, I remember the shock I felt when I moved to southern California and heard about the practice of making a medicine run to Tijuana.

Now, of course, the internet allows anyone in the US to access these drugs from around the world. And, from what I understand, unless the drugs are a controlled substance, US law is unsettled about the legality of the practice. The FDA frowns on it, and issues stern warnings and advisories… but there are not laws against it.

I have never “finished” cattle for slaughter. I do believe the big feeding operations put some antibiotics in the feed for awhile. But USDA requires that all animals be removed from all antibiotics for a period of time before they’re butchered. They really do pay attention to the big feedlots, so I imagine they comply. But what effect any of that has, I don’t know. In the upper midwest, where farmers grow their own corn to feed to cattle for “finishing”, I doubt they use antibiotics other than on a sick animal.

Most cattle never go through feed lots at all. They’re taken straight from the stockyard to the processing plant, and have almost certainly been on grass before that. Only the really prime beef goes through feed lots.

I’m not in the upper midwest, and am strictly “cow/calf”. I never, ever feed antibiotics to cows. If one gets an infection of some sort, I might well give her an antibiotic injection or two. But that’s it. Sometimes I will give medicated feed to weaning calves to avoid stress-related infections. That’s about two weeks. They are sold months later. Sometimes I never give them any kind of medication. Their diet is mother’s milk, then milk and grass, then high grade hay for weaning, then grass. Some hay in the winter if they winter over. That’s it. Most ranchers do as I do. It’s really expensive to feed a lot of antibiotics and it’s rarely justified.

But if a rancher has a cow or calf with an acute infection of some kind (usually eye or foot) the animal needs antibiotics, and it needs it immediately. Typically, the animal responds very quickly, and does not require a week or ten days of treatment like people do. Usually one injection is it. Their immune responses are extremely good.

But I really do wonder if these people are considering how short-lived these animals are. They don’t get treated with antibiotics time and again over a long lifetime like people do. Most never get any at all. Some few do, maybe once, maybe twice. Never have I had to resort to the kinds of sophisticated antibiotics doctors prescribe for people. Probably most human diseases are already resistant to the kinds of simple antibiotics that are used on cattle.

My wife is an RN. I remember, some years ago, her telling me about MRSA in nursing homes, to which it was pretty much confined then. I remember thinking that the very prevalent use of antibiotics in nursing homes would surely result in proliferation of MRSA and other resistant strains. And, of course, MRSA is everywhere now. Likely, nursing home use is part of it. Undoubtedly, indiscriminate use of foreign antibiotics is part of it.

But it really is true. Veterinary antibiotics are very old-line antibiotics. They don’t much work with people anymore, but they still work quite well with animals. That should be instructive.

Human use, not animal use, is the problem. They’re chasing the wrong demon. But then, isn’t that what government does best?

No antibiotics in our cattle.

They are yummy too.

I don’t know what the government is talking about. We don’t use antibiotics on our cows either. Preventive medicines, yes.

Same here. We don’t even fertilize the pasture. Our cows are about as natural as they can get.

I think it’s directed at factory farms. These are places where there is no pasture; where large numbers of cattle spend their days wading through feces in confined spaces until they’re slaughtered. They don’t spend their days grazing on grasses with the occassional injection or additive antibiotic; they eat the ground up remains of animals mixed in with grain and plastic pellets laced with growth hormones and antibiotics.



PETA fan?


No, I think PETA is a ridiculous organization but the fact remains that factory farms are disgusting ceaspools of bacteria and disease that severely mistreat animals and feed them an unatural diet for their species which includes canabalism and loads of antibiotics and growth hormones. The notion that we need such places or we’ll all starve is patently ridiculous. The United States wastes 100 BILLION pounds of food every year (thats almost 1/3rd of the total amount of what is produced!) and, given the obesity rate, I think the U.S. would benefit from a smaller market comprised of thousands of independent natural farmers rather than an uneccessarily large market controlled by a handful of corporations.

How many of these farms are there and where are they located?

Many of your small time independent cattle ranches are not doing it for the money. We’d be living in a dirt floor shack if we relied solely on our cattle. Most of the fellow ranchers I know have more than one job, that’s usually oil field related. Ridge knows more than I do on this because I spend most of my time in the oil field while other members of my family take care of the horses, pigs, cows, show steers, ducks, goats and whatever else we may have. But if Im not mistaken many ranchers have been losing money the last couple of years. I think some of the sale barns are in trouble as well.

I don’t know precisely how many factory farms there are in the United States but I do know that they’re concentrated in the midwest and east coast and that four corporations and their factory farms control the vast majority of the food supply as it relates to livestock. For an example of the horrible conditions at these farms I’ll present this to you:

What you see is how sows spend their entire lives in Smithfield factory farms. They never see the light of day or even stand up for that matter. They’re confined to those gestation crates until a few days before they’re ready to give birth. Then they’re moved to slightly larger crates to have their piglets; where they stay for three weeks. After the three weeks are over; they’re artifically inseminated and stuffed back into their gestation crate. This cycle continues until the day they die. As for the other pigs, well, they’re not much better off:


I think the biggest reason for this is because we’ve allowed our food to be controlled by a handful of corporations which have flooded the market with cheap meat.

Factory-raised animals rarely get to move around because they would burn fat and lose weight if they do. Losing weight equals higher feed costs because the animals are sold by the pound. So, they are kept immobile as much as possible.

Which, even disregarding the stuff that feed is made of, is an atrocious practice.

It’s my impression that there are what could be called “factory farms” for dairy cattle in the east and in the far west. There are none around here anywhere. I am unaware of any beef “factory farm” and very much doubt one could be economically viable in the true sense of the term.

I have seen pork “factory farms” and the ones I have seen are not like the Emperor describes them. No doubt they differ some. I am also aware that some of the biggest processors are going back to simply buying farm-raised hogs. But even family hog farms have a sort of “factory” aspect to them because hogs are so prone to disease, including human diseases and bird-borne diseases. Their mortality rate can be terrible if they’re not raised in very controlled conditions.

Poultry production is almost entirely “factory farm” production. But I have been in those operations as well, and they compare favorably to “Old MacDonald’s Farm” when it comes to the conditions in which the poultry are raised. Doubtless there are some few bad actors in that business, but the ones who do well provide very good conditions.

I remember my grandfather telling me about the value of chickens long ago. They were expensive; massively more expensive than now, relatively speaking. The old expression “a chicken in every pot” is meaningless now, because chicken is cheap. But the meaning (prosperity) it once had underlines the fact that chicken was once a middling luxury.

I am not sure dairy “factory farms” are justifiable from any standpoint. I suspect corporate hog factory farms might be on their way out for economic reasons. I’m not sure we’ll ever get away from poultry factory farms, and am not sure we should.

The profitability of beef production depends on where one is with it and how one approaches it. Most definitely, the “backgrounders” and “finishers” lost their shirts in 2008-2009. No so right now. Cow/calf was squeezed pretty hard in late 2008/2009, but it’s pretty good right now. Any cow/calf producer will tell you that what he’s really doing is “selling grass”. It’s only because cattle can thrive on grass, which is cheap to raise and is otherwise useless to humans for food, that it’s economically viable to raise them.

But it has to be recognized that almost no method of animal-raising is very pleasing from an aesthetic standpoint. Cow/calf is probably the most pleasing when observed. But it has to be realized, too, that the life of animals in the wild is not very aesthetically pleasing either, and people shouldn’t expect animal life to be like the way we, ourselves, would want to live.

I might mention that the “cages” shown in one of the photos are open in the back. I have seen similar things in the past, the purpose being to keep the more dominant animals from chasing the less dominant ones away from their feed; something lots of animals will do. In such operations, the animal can simply back out and go elsewhere after it has eaten its food.

Those cages for sows are called “farrowing cages”, and the purpose is to keep the sow from eating her own litter or rolling over on them and killing them; something sows will do. I have seen those before, and the sow is only in them for a short time. They aren’t kept in them otherwise.

I’ve seen similar setups in sale barns and show barns. My nieces and nephew raise show animals, steers, hogs, lambs. They move their pig pens every year to prevent the new bunch from catching any sort of diseases the ones who were there the year before might have been carrying. They also use a farrowing cage for their sow, better to have an uncomfortable sow than dead babies.

I believe about 95 to 97% of the farms in the US are family owned and operated. Have you ever watched The Last Cowboy? A show on TV about some ranches, in Montana I believe. Those guys are tough, they deserve to be recognized for the hard life they live so people can have some food on the table.

I haven’t seen the show, but I have seen ads for it. Guess I’ll watch it on your recommendation. Ranching isn’t easy under any circumstances, but I can just imagine how tough it must be in a place like Montana where the number of acres it would take to support one cow would have to be pretty significant, and where the winters are really harsh. The more wide open a ranch is, the harder it is to manage the cattle. And the more open it is, the wilder they tend to become. And I can’t even imagine what it’s like dealing with blizzard conditions and temperatures so cold the water sources freeze up.

Regarding the farrowing cages, it’s my impression that after the piglets are born, the sow is moved to another cage where the piglets can get access to the sow when she lays down but the sow can’t get access to the piglets.

After the piglets are weaned, the sows get bred and go to a more open area until it’s farrowing time again. At least that’s what I have seen, in both “factory farms” and in family farms. Anymore, the two kinds of farms are very similar, and both are really labor-intensive. And they’re hazardous. I get into the corrals with cattle all the time, but I wouldn’t get into a pen with a grown hog for all the tea in China. Factory farm or family farm, people who raise hogs ought to be given medals for bravery.

I suspect those are some of the reasons why the trend seems to be away from factory hog farming. There’s a world of difference between a hired worker and an owner.

That’s probably also the reason why virtually all poultry “factory farms” are actually family farms operating on contract with the big integrators. Very labor-intensive and “hands on”. I don’t know about Oklahoma, but around here “factory” poultry farming is a very big benefit to family farmers.

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