Cattle producers purchased 42 percent of all medically important antibiotics sold for livestock use in the United States in 2018 — about the same amount sold for chicken and pork production combined, according to a scathing report published this month by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
In fact, in 2018, nearly as many antibiotics of medical importance were sold for use in cattle (5.6 million pounds) as for human use (7.5 million pounds).
Most of those antibiotics wouldn’t be necessary if the U.S. beef industry made changes in how they raise cattle and produce meat. Cattle producers in the U.S. use antibiotics three to six times more intensively than do their counterparts in the European Union, the report points out. That’s because the drugs are fed routinely to cattle on U.S. feedlots — even when no animals are sick.
The European Union, which is the third-largest beef producer globally, not only discourages the routine feeding of antibiotics to cattle, it has announced that it will no longer allow the practice starting in 2022.
And with good reason. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics in cattle and other livestock has been a key contributor to the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance, which, as the NRDC report stresses, is “one of the gravest threats” to human health.
Right now, of course, the world is focused on a deadly viral infection — COVID-19 — for which, as yet, there is no vaccine or curative medicines. But antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections — ones that are extremely difficult or impossible to treat with any type of drug — have been with us longer and have reached epidemic proportions as well.
Each year, 2.8 million Americans develop an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that those infections lead to about 35,000 deaths annually, although others have estimated the number to be much higher — more than 162,000 deaths annually.
‘A dangerous crutch’
In the U.S., the beef industry is dominated by giant feedlots in a handful of states (Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas), and it’s on those feedlots where antibiotics are most likely to be misused, the NRDC report says. Practices such as crowding the cattle together and feeding them a diet high in grains, to which the animals’ ruminant stomachs are not well adapted, leave the cattle susceptible to liver abscesses and bovine respiratory disease (also known as “shipping fever”).
Cattle producers and their veterinarians say the routine use of antibiotics is needed to keep the animals from getting these and other illnesses. But as the NRDC report describes in detail, most of the antibiotics could be avoided if changes were made to the cattle’s living conditions in the feedlots.
“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,” writes Dr. David Wallinga, the report’s author and a senior health adviser with NRDC, in a blog posting that accompanies the report.
“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 [U.S. Department of Agriculture] surveys,” he adds. “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.”
Change is possible
The beef industry is not transparent about its antibiotic use, for it doesn’t have to give a direct accounting to government regulators of the drugs it puts in its feed, the report says. And the industry apparently doesn’t feel any urgency to do so.
That could change, says Wallinga, if one or more of the four major meatpacking companies (Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS and National Beef) were to put policies in place to end routine antibiotic use on feedlots.
“The chicken industry proved that changes in meat supply chains can happen quickly,” he writes. “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 Perdue, Foster Farms, and Tyson, as well as fast food giants like McDonald’s, Subway, and KFC, provided critical leadership in making that change happen.”
Chickens now account for only 4 percent of all medically important drugs sold for use in U.S. livestock, he adds.
It’s time — long past time — for cattle producers to take similar steps.
“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?” asks Wallinga.
“On our current course, that is every much in questions,” he says. “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.”
FMI: You can read the full report, “Better Burgers: Why It’s High Time the U.S. Beef Industry Kicked Its Antibiotics Habit” on the NRDC website.