Will farmers feed their livestock fewer antibiotics?

Cattle eat a ration of feed on a farm August 3, 2012 near Cuba, Ill.

Farm animals are big drug users.

“Seventy percent of all antibiotics produced in this country, by weight, go to animals,” says Stuart Levy, a professor at Tufts University and president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics. He says almost all of those are feed additives. “Do we need all this antibiotic usage?" he asks. "The answer is no.” 

The FDA, concerned about bacteria in humans becoming resistant to antibiotics, agrees -- no more using antibiotics to fatten animals. It’s asking drug companies to voluntarily change their labels, technically restricting use by farmers and potentially raising their costs.

Gay Miller is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A decade ago she estimated removing antibiotics to encourage growth might cost farmers a little more than a dollar a pig. Today, she says, it’s less clear what it might cost. Farmers, she says, want to “produce a pig that is healthy and high quality as efficiently as possible.”

“Certainly it is not something that’ll make the price of meat go down,” says Scott Hurd, a professor at Iowa State University and former USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety. He says the ag industry is ready for the change. But the rules aren’t going to stop farmers from giving drugs to their animals to keep them healthy.

“We’re raising babies here," he says, "and the important thing about antibiotics is to raise those babies in a healthy way.”

The pharma companies don’t seem all that worried they’re about to lose a big customer.

“We think the implications will be pretty minor, at least in the near term,” says David Krempa, an analyst at Morningstar. He thinks without a tougher ban, farmers are going to keep doing what they do.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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