By RICK A. RICHARDS
NEW YORK, N.Y. — The use of antibiotics in livestock production is a proven tool to keep animals healthy – that view, presented by farmers, was sharply challenged by Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union during the Nov. 16 Food Dialogues presented by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.
The discussion at The TimesCenter in Midtown Manhattan centered on the impact of antibiotic use on humans.
“There is a crisis with the use of antibiotics in this country,” said Halloran, one of five panelists taking part in the discussion, “Your Toughest Questions Answered on Antibiotics and Your Food.”
“Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness and, with its use in 80 percent of animals, I’m worried about the impact on humans,” said Halloran.
She said her organization has begun a “Meat Without Drugs” campaign in an effort to eliminate the use of antibiotics in livestock production merely as a growth enhancer. “They should only be used on sick animals,” said Halloran.
Keith Ayoob, a pediatric nutritionist with the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York City, said the conundrum is how to provide safe food for everyone while maintaining safe husbandry practices.
“The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has shown that the presence of pathogens in food has declined since the use of antibiotics began,” said Ayoob.
Barb Determan, a pork producer from Iowa, agreed producing safe food for consumers is a priority. “We work with veterinarians on our farm to develop herd health programs. We have documentation to show how we’re using antibiotics, why we’re using and how much,” she explained.
Veterinarian Christine Hoang of the American Veterinary Medical Assoc. said the use of antibiotics helps eliminate the possibility of contamination in humans during the slaughter process.
“That’s where the highest chance of contamination occurs,” she said.
“Certainly we can reduce the use of antibiotics, but preventing disease is what we’re after.”
Karen Jordan, a dairy farmer and veterinarian from North Carolina, said her focus on the farm is eliminating disease. “We’re doing everything in our power to reduce the use of antibiotics,” she said.
Halloran, though, said antibiotics aren’t reducing disease and its use is harming humans. She said a new approach to livestock management would have a greater impact than the use of antibiotics. “Maybe we use a little less dense growing practice. It might cost a little more, but it would be more beneficial,” she said.
Jordan, however, was skeptical that antibiotics can be entirely eliminated: “I wonder what animal welfare would be like if there were no antibiotics. We are just as concerned about antibiotics as anyone else. We’re not stupid.”
Halloran suggested the public be informed about the use of antibiotics by special packaging labels in the form of a warning. Determan said that would serve more to scare the public than inform them.
“We test our meat to make sure that no residual antibiotics are in it,” she said, adding she didn’t think a label could be designed to serve every kind of meat. “Without antibiotics I’d be concerned about animal welfare. We’ve changed the management of our animals and we still need to use antibiotics.”
Jordan said the key for the future is more research into the issue to see if there are as yet undiscovered remedies for the problem.
“There is a whole class of antibiotics used for animals that are never used on humans. We simply trying to make food safe,” said Hoang.
Halloran was unconvinced: “I disagree. You’re trying to make it more profitable, not safer.”