A few weeks ago I was at a networking event where a young man in a blue hoodie started complaining about all the antibiotics in beef. Even though his assumptions weren’t correct, his fear was real. In fact, one of the hottest topics right now in food and nutrition is antibiotic use in animals. I am often asked about antibiotics in the food supply and how consumers can avoid them. So, I traveled all the way to Edgar, Nebraska to spend the day with Dawn Caldwell to get some answers. Dawn is a cattle producer, wife, mother, blogger, and works full time at the Aurora Cooperative as the head of government affairs. She earned a degree in animal science and beef nutrition from the University of Nebraska, making her extremely knowledgeable about all things cattle. If anybody could help answer my questions, I knew it would be Dawn!
Let’s start with antibiotics…
Back in December of 2013, the FDA released two guidance documents that address this very issue. These guidance issues known as “209 and 213” relate to phasing out the use of medically important antimicrobials in food animals or food production purposes. As Dawn explained it, she will no longer be able to give preventative antibiotics in the feed or water. If medicine is given in the feed, this will have to be approved by a veterinarian. According to the FDA, “these drugs include all drugs that work against a variety of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.” Also, all antibiotics are antimicrobials, but not all antimicrobials are antibiotics. These changes obviously impact both the drug companies and the producers. When I asked Dawn what she thought of it, she said it will likely increase animal handling since they will still need to administer the same medicines to keep their cattle healthy. Nonetheless, administering it through the feed made it a much easier process for the animals and the producer. Instead, this will certainly add more steps to the animal handling procedures.
Another thing that producers have taught me over the years is that antibiotics are only given when an animal is truly sick and needs to be treated. As I’ve learned from Dawn and other producers, the inhumane thing to do would be to deny treatment. When an animal is in need of treatment, they treat it with antibiotics and there is actually a 28-day withdrawal period, where the animal is not allowed to enter the food supply. Dawn told me the medicine is typically given in the neck area, which is not really utilized for meat consumption anyway. She also informed me that each animal is tested at the processing plant before they are harvested. If the animal tests positive for antibiotics, that animal will not be used for typical meat consumption. It will be “tanked” and mostly likely used for another purpose. If the animal does test positive, that producer will not receive any money for their animal. Nothing. So, it would never be in the best interest of the producer to administer antibiotics if the animal truly doesn’t need it.
Dawn told me that the answer depends on the producer. On her ranch, they typically give 3 sets of vaccinations. Within the first 24 hours after a calf is born, they will weigh the it and administer the first set of vaccinations. This vaccination essentially helps prevent a host of clostridial diseases. The second set is typically 6 weeks after birth and that is basically a booster of the first vaccination set. The final set is given 6 months after birth and before they are weaned and is a booster to the previous shots. This is given before they start feeding solely on their own because this helps protect the calf from any disease they might pick up from being commingled with calves from different pastures, as well as the stress of being weaned.
To learn more about antibiotics and hormones in beef, CommonGround Nebraska encourages you to visit www.findourcommonground.com. Below are two links related to the topic.