Yes, Virginia, there could be antibiotics in your meat

We should be completely transparent about our production methods, and well-enough read to explain our position.

Alan Newport, Editor, Beef Producer

February 15, 2017

5 Min Read
Yes, Virginia, there could be antibiotics in your meat

Amanda Radke’s blog in today’s BEEF Daily offers some thoughtful points on how we can communicate with consumers about our use of antibiotics in beef production. Allow me to share some additional points to ponder.

Just the other day I heard someone in our industry again say, "There are no antibiotics in meat."

Folks, this really isn't true. Certainly it is technically inaccurate. The Food and Drug Administration has a very specific list of how much residue is allowable in meats from all antibiotics and other drugs used in food animal medicine.

These are miniscule amounts, in the parts per million and sometimes parts per billion, but in an age where fake news really does abound from many sources and liars are all around, I believe we need to rise above the low standards of society and seek always to be as truthful as possible.

Rather than a flat denial, it seems to me preferable to say something like this: "Well, it's possible you could find an antibiotic residue in a few parts per million, or even parts per billion, but with the amount of scientific study that went into the testing and approval process, I'm certainly not worried about it."

We could then explain that very few drugs used in the beef industry even have any ties to human medicine and that this year alone, a new FDA rule went into effect making it much harder to feed antibiotics to livestock unless there is a medicinal need. The intent, of course, is to lower total usage. So, we could sum it up like this: the livestock industry is being very responsible with antibiotics and is working to decrease antibiotic usage even further.

A great closing question to this elevator speech could be, "Would you like me to send you some addresses to FDA internet sites explaining what goes on in the testing and approval of livestock medicines, and in the monitoring of our food system for safety?

There are several very good sources you could point people to for study, and maybe we should all keep these in our desks or pickups or wallets so we can send them to people, or access them ourselves.

First is Appendix I, US Residue Limits for Compounds in Meat and Poultry. This lists all the drugs and how much is allowable in each species for which it may be used.

We could even share with our consumer friends to whom we send this appendix that some of the most used antibiotics in our industry are called tulathromycin, ceftiofur, florfenicol, gamithromycin, and occasionally chlortetracycline. We also use a couple of compounds which are technically antibiotics called monensin and lasalocid sodium, and dewormers called avermectin. I suppose you could throw in anything else you deem worthwhile. But this gives transparency to your interaction.

Second, this web page from the Animal Health Institute explains the basics of how animal-health drugs get approved.

Also, this veterinary medical page from FDA offers many resources consumers can search through for a variety of topics on how animal health products are regulated.

Also, FDA's center for veterinary medicine maintains a web page which thoroughly explains the drug approval process. It is titled From an Idea to the Marketplace: The Journey of an Animal Drug through the Approval Process.

Another thing that could help calm the nerves of nervous consumers is to explain there are rigorous waiting periods between antibiotic treatments and slaughter which must be obeyed to let the medicines clear out of their bodies and flesh through natural body function.

Further, I think we should explain to them that government inspectors regularly test meats for residues of medicines, pesticides and other potentially harmful compounds. The entire monitoring process was stepped up in 1996 with creation of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System.

Despite the fact a couple of the older antibiotics such as penicillin and tetracycline were used in animal and humans, neither gets much use anymore. Perhaps more important, it is my understanding that the chances of any medically important (human) antibiotic will ever again be approved for use in livestock is less than nil.

I would argue this means the primary remaining danger to humans from antibiotic use on food animals is the odd ability for microbes to share resistance across species and across antibiotic families. It's rare, but it happens. This is developing science and may not be worth debating with consumers.

Further, for your information, FDA explains its regulatory role this way:

"Besides proving a product will work as the drug company says it will, the FDA says it wants to assure food products made from treated animals must be safe for people to eat. To show that the food products are safe, a drug sponsor usually conducts what are called human food safety studies.

"One goal of human food safety studies is to make sure the level of chemical residues in or on food made from treated animals will not harm people. When a food-producing animal is treated with a drug, chemical residues of the drug may be present in or on food products made from that animal. Chemical residues include small amounts of leftover drug, or parts of the drug that are not completely broken down by the animal’s body.

"A second goal of human food safety studies is to minimize the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that enter the food supply in or on food products made from treated animals."

I also think it is fair to remind people that antibiotic compounds are all around us in nature, and animals self-medicate with plants in their environment, as Fred Provenza's research in Utah tells us. This means there are many compounds in meat which might be testable, and which could be harmful in large quantities or helpful in small quantities. Frankly, science simply can't quantify everything that happens in nature.

And for those vegans out there, the government agencies have allowances for pesticides in food products, too.



About the Author(s)

Alan Newport

Editor, Beef Producer

Alan Newport is editor of Beef Producer, a national magazine with editorial content specifically targeted at beef production for Farm Progress’s 17 state and regional farm publications. Beef Producer appears as an insert in these magazines for readers with 50 head or more of beef cattle. Newport lives in north-central Oklahoma and travels the U.S. to meet producers and to chase down the latest and best information about the beef industry.

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