Consumer concern about the use of antibiotics in livestock production, and a possible link to antibiotic resistance problems in human medicine, is driving many livestock and poultry producers to reduce the use of antibiotics in their growing programs.

On February 23, at the Annual Meat Conference 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee, Dr. Philip Stayer, corporate veterinarian for Sanderson Farms Inc., Dr. Scott Stehlik, general manager of technical operations at The Maschhoffs LLC, and Beef Marketing Group CEO John Butler, fielded questions about antibiotic use as part of a panel discussion on the future of antimicrobials in the food supply.

Antibiotic-free production, the way of the future?

Growing consumer and regulatory pressure raises the question of whether antibiotic use in livestock production could end in coming years.

In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) will go into effect. The regulation will ban the use of growth promoting antibiotics the FDA deems medically important to humans. The move is coupled with growing consumer concern about the presence of antibiotics in the food supply.

In response, major animal protein companies are rolling out new lines of meat from animals never given antibiotics – marketed as “No Antibiotics Ever” – or pledging to exceed the standards set by the VFD. Some protein purchasers are also pledging not to sell any meat raised with antibiotics.

The panelists said antibiotics are used to protect animal health when other disease-prevention methods fail, and because of mandatory withdrawal periods, the medications are not present in the meat U.S. consumers eat.

Stayer, the lead veterinarian for the third largest company in WATT PoultryUSA’s Top Broiler Company rankings, said that he hopes that “No Antibiotics Ever” doesn’t become the standard production method. Until a better tool for protecting animal health comes along, livestock producers need the option to use antibiotics. Their use allows growers to produce a healthier product for consumers.

He said removing antibiotics entirely – going no antibiotics ever – will have a domino effect on the industry as a whole. Stayer estimated no antibiotics ever practices would increase the size of an operation by 20 percent.

“So you’re talking about a much bigger carbon footprint. Much more corn required, much more manure to be deposited, so if you don’t treat your animals with the current technology available now there’s a price effect,” Stayer said. “The consumer may be asking for something where they don’t really know what the unintended consequences are. So sometimes you give someone what they want, and it’s not what they thought they wanted.”

Stayer added that Sanderson Farms is capable of going no antibiotics ever, but birds will suffer if that change is made.

Stehlik, a leader of the Illinois-based pork producer’s breeding program, agreed that a system based on no antibiotics ever practices would lead to either a decline in product produced or an increase in price.

Butler, a leader of the Kansas-based beef producer cooperative, said the best way to respond to the situation is to continue providing consumers choices; whether it be organic, antibiotic-free or conventionally raised. The challenge is to do it in a sustainable way. His own company tried to produce a no antibiotics ever Angus product, but it was unsustainable due to the high cost and the risk of implementing an antibiotic-free program in a decentralized cattle rearing infrastructure.

Consumers disconnected from farming

Suspicion of antibiotic use may be caused by growing disconnect between farmers and the average American consumer. Stehlik said the number of farms in the country is steadily declining as its population increases. That disconnect creates a lack of trust and a desire for more transparency in the food supply. He acknowledged the animal protein industry must do a better job of being transparent, but wondered if consumers will ultimately be willing to pay more for a product a vocal minority is demanding.

“I struggle with allowing that subset of the consuming public to drive the price point for the majority and in essence pull the options away from the folks who don’t have that consumer ability to spend more,” Stehlik said.

Producers must take action to address trust issues

Butler said animal protein producers need to take comprehensive action to address consumer’s skepticism about their products.

“If we tackle trust in a holistic way we will make terrific steps with the consumer,” Butler said. “We love taking care of animals and we’ve got to start convincing consumers that that is part of it. These tools that we have in our tool chest – including antibiotics – are part of our ability to do our job. When we get a chance to be consumer facing … the takeaway [for consumers] is ‘I’m convinced, check the box, the protein is safe.’”

Otherwise, Butler cautioned, activists will continue to set the agenda for consumers.

“We’ve sort of let the activists take a role in dismantling our business and dismantling the way we do business, and we sort of sit there and [say], ‘Well that’s OK,’” Butler said. “Here we are. We cannot do that any longer. We’ve got to be very much out in front.”