We all want to make healthy food choices, not only to fuel our busy lifestyles but also to make a positive impact on environmental sustainability and animal well-being. High quality animal-based proteins — such as beef, pork, eggs, poultry and dairy — are an important part of a nutritious, balanced diet. However, you may have concerns about antibiotics given to animals and the impact on your health and the environment.

With so many food choices available today, it can get confusing, especially if you’re using food labels to decide what to add to your grocery cart. These labels can often raise more questions than they answer. Are there antibiotics in meat and poultry? Is all meat antibiotic free? Do antibiotics make animals grow faster? We spoke with Dr. Kristen Obbink, a veterinarian and assistant director of the National Institute of Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education based at Iowa State University in Ames, to find some answers.

Livestock farmers consult with their veterinarians to determine the best treatment for farm animals, explains Dr. Obbink. Just like how we may need antibiotics to feel better, sometimes farmers must use antibiotics to treat farm animals that get sick.

“When our animals get sick, we do need to be able to treat them,” she continues. “That’s not a good quality of life for that animal if they are having to live with an illness and we can’t treat it.” Plus, research shows that healthy animals result in safer food, Obbink says.

In addition, because of improved animal health practices, livestock farmers are producing more using fewer natural resources than at any time in history. 

For example, pig farmers have reduced their carbon footprint by 7.7% since the 1960s thanks to advancements in genetics, animal nutrition and overall pig care, according to the latest research.

Are antibiotics allowed in meat?

All meat, poultry and dairy foods sold in the U.S. are free of antibiotic residues, as required by federal law.

If a farm animal does get sick and need antibiotics, farmers must follow strict FDA guidelines for the proper dosage, duration and withdrawal time – or in other words, the time between when the animal is treated and when it goes to market, Obbink explains. As an added layer of protection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture samples meat and poultry products to ensure they are free of antibiotic residues.

In the very rare case when a product tests positive for antibiotic residues, it is removed from the food supply chain and never goes to market, Obbink explains. This protects the food system, public health, and you personally. 

Are most of the antibiotics sold in the United States used in livestock farming?

Maybe you’ve read or heard that 70% to 80% of the antibiotics sold in our country are given to farm animals. It’s a percentage that is often repeated by the media and by vegan activists. However, that number is almost a decade out of date and based on confusing data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Obbink says.

Since 2009, the FDA has released an annual report of sales and distribution of antimicrobials sold or distributed to food-producing animals like cows, pigs, and poultry.

The report only collects data on sales, not on actual usage. So veterinarians and farmers may purchase antibiotics, but never administer them to animals. Plus, in both human and animal medicine, antibiotics are administered by weight. It takes more antibiotics, on a per pound basis, to treat a 2,000 pound cow than a 150 pound human.

In addition, there are many more farm animals than humans. For instance, there are approximately 327 million people in the United States, compared to about 9.1 billion chickens raised on U.S. farms. “So it’s not apples to apples. You can’t just take the (FDA) numbers and compare them directly. You have to consider the caveats that go along with it,” Obbink says.

Obbink adds that farmers and veterinarians don’t just want to see a decrease in sales of antibiotics. Instead, they are focused on the whole public health picture, she says. “We want to prevent disease in the first place. We are doing a lot of research on antibiotic alternatives. We make sure to implement good vaccine protocols for animals and practice good farm biosecurity. So helping animals stay healthy in the first place,” Obbink says.

How can farmers reduce antibiotic usage in farm animals?

Farmers continue to work closely with their veterinarians to protect animal health and overall food safety, using the latest science to guide herd-health decisions, Obbink says.

And just like how I repeatedly wash my hands to keep from getting sick during cold and flu season, farmers take precautions - such as improved animal-care practices, vaccines and strict biosecurity protocols - to help animals stay healthy so they don’t need antibiotics in the first place, Obbink says.

Farmers and veterinarians are also exploring alternatives to antibiotics, such as probiotics in animal feed, she says. “This is definitely an area that a lot of research and education efforts are being put into,” Obbink says.

A new report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows progress in reducing antibiotic use in the food system. Since 2015, sales and distribution of medically important antimicrobials for food-producing animals have dropped 38%, the FDA reported.

It’s a significant decline and shows that farmers and their veterinarians have made responsible use of antibiotics a priority, Obbink says. “Farmers want to do the right thing,” Obbink says. “They truly care about their animals and the food that they produce. Their families eat that food too. We all want animals to be cared for appropriately and with good welfare and safe and healthy food in the process.”

Are antibiotics used to “fatten” cattle, and do they make animals grow faster?

Under new regulations implemented in 2017, the FDA worked with animal drug manufacturers to discontinue the use of medically important antimicrobials for animal growth promotion or feed efficiency. In other words, these antibiotics cannot be used to “fatten” cattle or make animals grow faster.

Farmers can use medically important antibiotics for animal disease prevention, treatment and control, but only with a veterinarian’s approval and oversight, as required by the FDA. What does “antibiotic free” or “no antibiotics” mean? All meat, poultry and dairy foods sold in the U.S. are free of antibiotic residues, as required by federal law — whether or not the food is labeled "antibiotic free."

Remember, food labels are about marketing, not about food safety, Obbink says. “We have the safest food supply in the world,” Obbink says. “We have very safe food, and using antibiotics responsibly and keeping our animals healthy are important to farmers and veterinarians.”

Recently, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service clarified meat and poultry labeling claims. Under the new regulations, USDA-certified organic meats and poultry products can be labeled “raised without antibiotics.”

Non-organic meats and poultry can be labeled that it was raised without the use of “sub-therapeutic antibiotics,” but only if there is an explanation of what that means. Sub-therapeutic antibiotics are those that are given for a longer period of time and at a lower dose, Obbink says. Typically, when farmers and veterinarians use antibiotics to treat a specific illness, they will use a higher dose for a short period of time, depending on the illness, Obbink explains.

How can I ensure meat is safe to eat?

Consumers also have a role to play in protecting food safety. To ensure that meat and poultry products are safe to eat, follow the basic steps for safely preparing foods: clean, separate, cook and chill. Make sure to use clean utensils and cooking surfaces when cooking. Keep raw foods separate from cooked foods. Cook to a food-safe temperature. And chill leftovers within two hours.

Remember, meat is tested to ensure that it is antibiotic-free. You don't have to worry about cooking to "destroy antibiotics" or about antibiotics affecting human health: they aren't there in the first place. Just focus on making the meat taste great, and cook it to a safe temperature to kill any harmful bacteria!

In addition, be sure to wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before and after handling food.

If you have questions about safe food handling at home, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MP-HOTLINE (1-888-674-6854). Live food safety experts are available Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time. Expert advice is also available 24/7 at Ask.USDA.gov.

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