On October 20th, 2015, Subway announced via press release and social media that it would start phasing out the use of meat from animals treated with antibiotics. A few days later, after much outcry from the people who actually raise the meat that Subway serves, they updated their announcement for clarity. There are many blogs so far that I have seen which directly address Subway, (Agriculture Proud is my favorite) so I wanted to take a moment and clarify why animals receive antibiotics.
Antibiotics are a family of chemicals which have a general negative effect on organisms. They differ greatly in their chemical make-ups and effective actions (some destroy cell membranes, others interfere with cell hormone regulation- just know that they are designed to kill specific cells). Antibiotics can be administered in a variety of ways, including via injection and orally, just as they are in humans. There does not seem to be much of an issue with either of these two points. Indeed, there is also not much pushback from people when it is stated that antibiotics are used to improve the health of animals which have been infected with a bacterial disease. These diseases are common and expensive to the animal industry, and so they are dealt with accordingly.
Antibiotics are used as a response to illness, rather than as a prevention tool (vaccines fall under the preventative umbrella). In order for antibiotics to be used, an animal has to be ill enough to show clinical signs, such as anorexia, antisocial behaviour, fever, pain due to inflammation and signs such as mucus discharge or coughing. When these symptoms exist, it means that the animal cannot fight the infection effectively without aid, which is where antibiotics come in. The animal is treated, and occasionally retreated, to help the animal beat and recover from the infection. Unless antibiotics are used in these cases, it is likely that the animal could suffer for a prolonged period of time and there is even potential for permanent damage to the animal’s body, or the animal could die. From this standpoint, it is difficult to find an argument against the proper use of antibiotics.
Did you see what I did there? “the PROPER use of antibiotics.” This is the sticking point for many consumers. They challenge that farmers are irresponsible with their use of antibiotics. Farmers don’t treat animals properly, with the right medicines, and so these “superbugs” are created. While it is true that superbugs exist, and that they are a medical concern, it is not true that antibiotic use in animals leads to the creation of superbugs (this paper from the Beef Cattle Research Council further explains this). Further, there are claims that the meat farmers produce is laden with antibiotic residue, which people then consume and can get ill from (remember, antibiotics are used to kill organisms). Again, this is simply untrue. Farmers who treat cattle with antibiotics must adhere to designated withdrawal times. Withdrawal times are different for every antibiotic, and for every species, but a withdrawal time is the period which is necessary for the antibiotic to be fully metabolized by the animal and leave the body (usually this occurs in the liver and kidneys). There are strict penalties for animals which are found at the slaughterplant with antibiotic residue in their carcasses, and so it really is a monitored, well recorded way of preventing antibiotics from reaching the food supply.
Based on these arguments, my family and I will continue to adhere to the withdrawal times that have been established for the medications we administer, and we will continue to help end the illnesses which we observe among our animals. In addition to that, we will continue to eat the beef we produce, so I challenge you: If I will eat it, and it has been treated with antibiotics, why won’t you?