"Cradle to grave" antibiotics for animals can't take the place of good genetics or healthy food, and overmedication may endanger human health in the long run, too.
Just like people, animals get sick. They take medicines, too.
And lately, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether giving animals antibiotic drugs may weaken or otherwise endanger humans by creating tougher strains of bacteria.
At the center of the controversy is the practice of feeding antibiotics to livestock continuously throughout their short lives. Modern medicine for people says we don’t treat diseases until they’ve infected us. Principles of veterinary medicine pretty much follow the same line of thought. So why do we give antibiotics to animals that aren’t sick?
Living as they do –outdoors or inside crowded buildings, under stress, and packed into pens — it’s easier for stock to get sick. About the closest humans come to these conditions is being incarcerated, crowded on public transportation or elbow–to-elbow in a classroom.
We know the way flu bugs can fly through an elementary school (abetted by the low immunity of youth). That’s the way it is with young farm animals, too. We vaccinate livestock for the worst things just as we do our own young, but even so, as with the diseases we adult humans have gained some immunity to through exposure, domesticated animals, even with vaccination, sometimes catch barnyard diseases that have to run their course.
Though animals can get sick anytime, the stresses of weaning or moving from farm to farm make it more likely. We can tell our own offspring to bundle up on cold days and give them neutraceuticals like OJ or broccoli, but cattle and hogs aren’t as easy to care for. Farmers “bundle up” animals by giving them the right kinds of feed and keeping them comfortable. While nourishment warms their bellies, antibiotic additives can lessen the effect of germy invaders that make them sick.
Forty years ago, standard treatments for livestock illness were penicillin and sulfamethazine. We administered penicillin by injection and gave the sulfa orally – via a pill or medicine dissolved in their water tank. Then American Cyanimid developed a combination of the two drugs formulated as a feed additive. These days, most antibiotics are either delivered as direct injections into sick animals, included in their feed, or metered into automatic waterers.
Over time, the bugs that make us all sick become resistant to treatments. Penicillin, for example, still works for some problems, but the things I treated my animals with in the 1960s don’t necessarily help these days. The need for new treatments has resulted in some very effective drugs for livestock, like one called Mycotil. While Mycotil has been used successfully on thousands of cattle, it could never be used on people because one dose means certain death to humans.
(Tragically, that’s what happened a few years ago when a Nebraska cattleman was accidentally injected with Mycotil. Without new antibiotics, however, livestock mortality would be much, much worse, and ultimately food costs would increase. Everything comes at a price.)
The makers of feed additives and synthetic growth hormones promote their products less for disease control than for better feed conversion and performance, but mostly they sell them to make money. These are high profit items; many dollars are at stake.
One clear case: Monsanto developed and patented an injectable synthetic hormone for dairy cattle called Posilac or rBST. To encourage wide use of its product, Monsanto lobbied for laws that would prevent the labeling of milk as rBST free (knowing the public was none too keen on drinking milk that contained animal hormones). The company claimed that there was no detectable difference in milk taken from cows treated with the hormone and animals that were untreated. (Their rationale may have been that no farmer would be able to afford to compete with other farmers unless they used Monsanto’s product.) Monsanto’s patent on Posilac, while allowing no alternative, would have given the company another monopoly, similar to the one they have on genetically modified soybeans.
Dairy farmers who resisted Monsanto’s strong-arming attempted to label their products as “synthetic-hormone-free” so as to earn a better price for their milk instead of increasing milk production at the expense of herd health and longevity. You see, using hormones to increase output shortens the productive life of cows by making them “wear out” too soon. As a result of the uproar, legislation passed that does allow the labeling of milk as “natural” (meaning rBST free); in turn, Monsanto sold the rights to its synthetic hormone to Dow Elanco.
You could call that sour grapes, or maybe in this case sour milk.
Undoubtedly, aggressive marketing to livestock producers has a major effect on the amounts and types of products that are fed, dosed, and injected into livestock. But to what extent does the wholesale use of sub-therapeutic antibiotic-laced feed reflect merchandising rather than the real health needs of animals? The most important aspect of raising livestock under any set of conditions is a strong and thrifty herd fed high quality feed. No hormone or additive, no matter how good, can improve on the basic genetics of animals or adequate nourishment.
It boils down to farmers doing a good job. In other words, the real reason for using feed additives often is to help overcome other deficiencies like poor quality feed or a poor environment. On our farm we decided that hormone implants and continuous feeding of antibiotics didn’t return first cost. Some of us simply don’t see medication as a 24/7 necessity.
Like most farmers I’ve spent hours and days with my animals, trying to save them when illness struck. Over the years we’ve had both kids and baby calves in the bathtub at our house, and piglets in the oven…on warm. (We never put the kids in the oven.) There is no worse feeling for a stockman than to watch his animals suffer or die when treatments fail.
We need all the tools we can get. We also need to use the tools we have responsibly because you never know, down the road, when or how badly they might be needed.
Earlier this winter my grandson came down with appendicitis. During surgery his appendix ruptured much the same way his Dad’s did about 28 years before. Just as with his father, my grandson received modern antibiotics and made a speedy recovery. Still, even when things work out as they should, it’s scary knowing what the alternative might have been.
Whether it’s in the family or on the family farm, the same question haunts parents and farmers alike: What will we do if the antibiotics don’t work?