Comments from legislators and regulators, biased media reports and activists’ false accusations have caused unfounded concern about antibiotic use in animal agriculture. The industry prides itself on the responsible use of antibiotics to produce a safe, nutritious and affordable food for the American consumer, and we need to find the best way to communicate that information.

Let me first begin with the two-part series that CBS News aired on antibiotic use in livestock and poultry. It lacked the basic journalistic balance (at least as I was taught it in journalism school). The report relied heavily on contributors from organizations that oppose conventional agriculture and led anchor Katie Couric to tell consumers that farmers over use and abuse antibiotics, when the facts don’t support such a claim.

Healthy animals

All of us in the industry understand medications are used judiciously and have allowed livestock and poultry producers to treat and prevent diseases in their animals. This, in turn, lowers the end food product’s cost to Americans at all income levels, because healthy animals don’t die and don’t require as much feed to reach market weight.

Now, I know I’m preaching to the choir but this last point is important. The livestock and poultry industry has a responsibility to produce safe, nutritious foods for all Americans, not just for those financially able to shop at organic markets. NTF supports organic production for those Americans who prefer to make that shopping choice, but it is a fact that antibiotic-free or organic products in many instances are more expensive than conventional foods. Just go to your local supermarket and compare. What are we supposed to do for Americans on fixed or limited incomes?

As a first step to enhancing the communication of our message, NTF, along with NCC and other animal agriculture trade associations, recently briefed congressional staff so they could better understand on-farm use of animal medications. The briefing included a panel of veterinarian experts who explained how and why antibiotics are used, the various layers of protection surrounding the use and the need for science-based decision-making when regulating animal health products.

Expert shares facts

Dr. Timothy Cummings, clinical poultry professor for the Department of Pathobiology and Population Medicine at Mississippi State University, explained how medicines are used in poultry production. During the briefing Cummings said, “Taking FDA-approved animal drugs off the market would leave farmers and veterinarians with very limited options for preventing and controlling disease in livestock and poultry, which would have serious repercussions for animal health and preventing foodborne disease.”

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Cummings’ statement was fitting as federal agencies and Congress have been trying to determine the safety of individual animal health products. Some at FDA would like to see growth promoters and feed efficiency drugs phased out and have expressed their desire for the industry to voluntarily discontinue the use of these types of drugs. Similarly, legislation (the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act) has been introduced in Congress, which would ban the use of several classes of critically important antibiotics in livestock and poultry production.

Cummings also told the more than 130 congressional staff in attendance that no scientific research in the past 30 years has concluded that antibiotic use in feed causes antibiotic resistance in humans, although he did point to a growing body of evidence that shows the responsible, professional use of the medicines keep animals healthy and enhances animal welfare, while not contributing to resistance.

Production of affordable poultry

Those in animal agriculture also used the briefing to communicate the significant price differential between conventionally-produced and antibiotic-free products. NTF found that in the Washington, D.C.-area there is an almost 84-percent increase per pound from a conventional whole turkey to an antibiotic-free whole turkey. Given that we are not cookie cutter consumers, there are a variety of turkey products available in the marketplace. It’s important for the public to know that whether raised with antibiotics or without, a healthy animal will ultimately be the best quality product for consumers just as the safety and health of their animals will always be the first concern for farmers.

The briefing also proved beneficial in educating consumers about the responsible use of antibiotics through various media outlets. NTF received 66 media clips that reached an audience of more than 302,000.

NTF and its members will continue to promote the responsible use of antibiotics that includes following a set of “prudent use” guidelines that were adopted in 1998 by the American Veterinary Medical Association in conjunction with FDA and CDC. The turkey industry will also continue to tout USDA reports that show more than 99.9 percent of turkeys sampled had no antibiotic residues. Collectively, the poultry industry must push for public policy that is science-based rather than unsubstantiated concerns so that the fact that the industry prides itself on the responsible use of antibiotics to produce a safe, nutritious and affordable product is not omitted yet again.