Big Beef, Its Antibiotics Habit, and Protecting Our Future

In the midst of the biggest health crisis of the past 100 years, I can’t stop thinking about U.S. meat producers overusing antibiotics, and how that practice undercuts the future health of the nation

It’s no secret that overusing and misusing antibiotics drives worsening antibiotic resistance. Yet nearly as many antibiotics of medical importance are sold in the U.S. for cattle use as for human medicine (5.6 million pounds of antibiotic active ingredient vs. 7.5 million pounds, respectively). The newly released NRDC report, Better Burgers: Why It’s High Time the U.S. Beef Industry Kicked Its Antibiotic Habitprovides crucial insight on why that is so, and why it needs to stop.

K-State Research and Extension via Flickr

U.S. beef feedlots routinely feed medically important antibiotics—mostly macrolides and tetracylines, which are used in people to treat sepsis, certain pneumonias, and UTIs that can turn life-threatening—at low doses to entire herds even when no cattle are sick, the report shows. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers this practice to be unnecessary and dangerous, precisely because it contributes to the proliferation and spread of antibiotic resistance.

Operators and their veterinarians claim these routine antibiotics are an essential crutch for ‘preventing’ disease on feedlots where other practices and conditions that promote disease remain unchanged. These uses are anything but essential.

Better Burgers shows that many or even most of the antibiotics used could be avoided altogether if feedlots were to focus instead on using non-antibiotic means to promote cattle health by changing feedlot conditions. For example, Figure 3 illustrates that a large majority of these precious medicines are used to “prevent” liver abscesses or to address the risks from respiratory disease; both problems can be effectively reduced or prevented on feedlots altogether through better diets and cattle management practices.

If anything, U.S. feedlots today are experiencing more cattle illnesses and deaths due to liver abscesses and shipping fever, not less, according to industry vets and infrequent USDA surveys. The paradox is that feedlot cattle seem to be getting sicker at the same time that feeding them antibiotics routinely is touted as an essential tool for preventing disease. 

Needed changes

Overusing precious antibiotics is a dangerous crutch for feedlots that want to put off or ignore the need for real changes in how cattle are being produced. Needed changes include, for example, taking steps to reduce cattle crowding and stress, moving cattle less often, and feeding them diets higher in roughage and lower in high-energy grains to which their ruminant stomachs are maladapted (existing diets create more liver abscesses).

Ongoing consolidation of the beef industry means that meatpackers have a lot of power to make these changes happen as feedlots often have just one or two meatpackers that buy their cattle. Increasingly the biggest meatpackers, Cargill, Tyson, JBS, and National Beef, secure leverage over feedlots through advance purchase contracts, or by operating their own. If these meatpacking giants want to ensure feedlots will raise cattle without feeding them routine antibiotics as “prevention”, they can make it happen.

The chicken industry proved that changes in meat supply chains can happen quickly. By the end of 2018, more than 90 percent of chicken sold in the United States was being produced without the routine use of medically important antibiotics—nearly double the amount from just a few years before. Some U.S. producers including PerdueFoster Farms, and Tyson, as well as fast food giants like McDonald’sSubway, and KFC, provided critical leadership in making that change happen. While cattle production accounts for 42 percent of all medically important drugs sold for use in U.S. food-producing animals, chickens now account for just 4 percent.

Sometime in the future, many or even most of us will suffer a superbug infection that may turn life-threatening. When that happens, will antibiotics be left that work?

On our current course, that is very much in question. But if the nation’s beef companies and their suppliers change their practices, that could make a tremendous difference and help change the course of this approaching storm.

About the Authors

David Wallinga, MD

Senior Health Advisor, Healthy People & Thriving Communities
Blog Post

To prepare for the next pandemic, it's vital to have effective, reliable antibiotics. Policymakers' failure to tackle antibiotic overuse in U.S. livestock puts that resource in question.

Blog Post

To prepare for future disease threats—like drug-resistant superbugs—information is critical. Using new, non-public data, we show that 44 percent more antibiotics of medical importance are sold for cows and pigs than for human medicine.

Blog Post

A crippling culture of secrecy in the livestock sector means it is tough for any headway to be made in addressing the industry's overuse of antibiotics.

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