Tyson Foods has announced plans to dial back the use of antibiotics in raising chickens. One of the company’s biggest customers — McDonald’s — announced last month plans to stop buying chicken raised with antibiotics that are also used in humans. Higher levels of antibiotic use are linked to faster development of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” which endanger people.
Next, Tyson says, it wants to cut back on antibiotics used on pigs and cattle.
Even advocates for reducing antibiotic use say that going antibiotic-free isn’t necessary. According to Jonathan Kaplan, director of the food and agriculture program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “it turns out we can get the same — or nearly the same — public-health benefits from reducing the routine use of antibiotics.”
Some exceptions make sense, he says, like treating animals that actually get sick, or giving low doses to piglets when they’re weaning.
Hog farmer Ron Prestage says Kaplan’s prescriptions actually describe the limits of antibiotic use on his farms, which produce more than half a billion pounds of pork a year.
“Trust me, I wouldn’t want my child or wife to have an illness that we did not have an appropriate drug to treat. Or myself either, for that matter,” says Prestage, who is also president of the National Pork Producers Council.
It’s not clear whether those practices represent the pork industry broadly. The FDA reported in 2014 that sales of antibiotics to farmers, including antibiotics used in humans, have risen dramatically.
What is clear: Reducing the use of antibiotics in cattle is a heavier lift. They’re not built to digest grain— which is what they get to eat in feedlots — so they get liver abscesses and need antibiotics.
Steve Roach, who runs the food safety program at the Food Animal Concerns Trust, says, “We’ve created these systems based on the ready availability of antibiotics. Trying to rejigger the system and find better diets for cattle is a challenge.”