The science and ethics of antibiotics

By Matt Reese

While the changes from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may not make sense to many in agriculture in terms of the risk/reward equation supported by science, but the reality is that consumers are demanding change.

Science clearly shows that antibiotics can safely be used in livestock. Should the associated risks limit antibiotic use?

“Quite frankly, I think we’re to the point where we won’t have a choice but to make some changes. People are scared. That is frustrating because they really don’t understand what is going on,” said Dr. Leah Dorman, of the Ohio Farm Bureau’s Center for Food and Animal Issues. “When we talk about antibiotics given to food animals, some people believe that they are actually eating the antibiotic in their food. They don’t understand that there is something called a withdrawal time that requires farmers to keep the animal out of the food supply until the drug is out of the animal’s system. Part of the testing process for the drug is the safety for the animal, but also how long the drug takes to clear the system so the meat is safe for human consumption. But people never want to hear about science and regulations, which are what I know best. We need to get better at answering that question for the consumer. I want to answer them with science, but that is not really what they want to hear about. ”

Consumers do hear about the risks, though. And a little risk can go a long way to create fear and doubt, particularly when the problems can be so hard to track.

“We have ecological studies showing that bacteria match when you look at samples taken from farms with those taken from human disease isolates and those taken from meat products, and that on farms lacking antibiotics you rarely see antibiotic-resistant organisms in the animals. We have lab-based studies showing how resistance evolves, both in petri dishes and in animals, on and on,” said Tara Smith, an assistant professor with the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, who has worked extensively in this area. “There’s also the issue of letting the genie out of the bottle — non-pathogenic bacteria can also carry resistance genes, and once they get into your gut, they can have all kinds of genetic exchange in there for months or years. How does one then go about tracing those newly evolved organisms back to antibiotic use on the farm, even if that’s where the genes ultimately came from? It’s very messy, and that’s something the risk assessments don’t take into account.”

There are some scary worst-case scenarios out there that are possible with irresponsible antibiotic use in agriculture. But there is also a long line of ifs, buts, possibilities and maybes that have to come together before these issues develop. Is there a real risk of this kind of scary stuff? Yes, but the body of science to date suggests that risks are outweighed by the many benefits to consumers and agriculture.

“We, as farmers, and certainly as veterinarians, understand that we need to maintain the ability to use antibiotics as a tool to care for that animal to keep them from being sick or to treat them when they are sick,” Dorman said. “In the big picture, the benefit of being able to take care of those animals to the best of our ability by using antibiotics as a tool is much greater than any risk of having resistance issues in a human. That is still hard to quantify with science and there are still a lot of things that we don’t know. There are people out there who think this is directly causing human antibiotic resistance, but I’m not buying that yet. But, with that, if new science comes out, I reserve the right to change my mind. In agriculture, we’re always looking for ways to improve what we do, based on what we learn.”

Unfortunately, though, this has become less about scientific risk assessment and more of an issue of ethics in food production. There are some who would suggest that even the possibility of additional human risk resulting from the use of specific production practices is unacceptable, no matter what the benefits. Ultimately, is it up to the individuals in the agricultural industry, or consumers to make their own informed decisions about the production of their food.

“We know we can safely use antibiotics, but should we use them? I think we should. I get a little concerned about whether these new restrictions are really in the best interest of the animal,” Dorman said. “If it becomes so cumbersome and so expensive to use antibiotics in the future, are we really going to use them? I think the effects of not using them are not good for the animal or the consumer in terms of food safety. The issue of antibiotic resistance is real. The science is confusing because there are so many variables, but it is important to base changes on sound science and not on consumer perception or fears. So far, FDA is not taking a sledgehammer to our ability to use antibiotics for the prevention, control or treatment of animal disease, but they are chipping away the production uses.  They are moving towards veterinary oversight of certain antibiotics in order to maintain their use on farms. It is important that farmers and consumers stay engaged and provide input as FDA moves forward with these changes.”


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  1. I’m not a big fan of antibiotic use in animals, but I am leaning toward believing that careful, occasional use could be acceptable. Just as a human gets sick and takes an antibiotic, so does an animal. I get that. Give them a recovery period; let it pass their system. Great.

    But I would like to see two things from the folks who use these on animals in order to convince me we’re on the right track:

    1) I think a phrase like “the FDA [is]…chipping away the production uses.” should not be buried in an article like this. If folks on your side would acknowledge that there might be cause for concern and work hard to remove unnecessary use like “production” (ie growth) uses, then you’d have my attention. I would believe you’re trying to reduce usage overall.

    2) Likewise, and I know this is much harder, but if you could also give some acknowledgement to the fact that your construct of placing animals on top of each other in very tight confinement is part of the reason you need such high levels of regular antibiotic use, we’d be getting somewhere. You argue that you need antibiotics to keep animals healthy. I am not arguing against healthy animals. What about finding non-antibiotic ways to reduce their exposure to disease? Like moving them out of cages and rooms where they’re right on top of each other? I’d need constant antibiotics too if I lived that close to my fellow humans 24/7.

    I realize this is a tough idea and that high production stipulates this sort of housing and the drive to produce more is a race to the top – faster weight gain is worth antibiotic-laced feed. But articles like this seem to ignore this other paradigm of thinking. I suppose we’re just nuts, but really, couldn’t we all agree that reducing antibiotic use is something we should ALL be working towards? In humans, in animals both.

    You can discuss risk/reward but you can also discuss different paradigms and different ways of thinking.

    Lastly, this idea that the guidelines will hurt smaller farmers because they will not be able to afford a veterinarian is…not a tenable argument. If you care about animal, human and planet health, the cost of veterinarians is incidental to the argument. Yes, it may hurt small farmers – so let’s pursue some solution to that. Take some of the farm bill budget and underwrite small farms’ vet bills. But you can’t use the fact that it will hurt small farms as an argument that we should continue with the status quo. I just don’t see that as a viable argument. (Don’t get me wrong – I empathize with those farmers, but I don’t see that as a valid argument in this case.)

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