People today are talking more about, and taking a greater interest in, how their food is produced. But they’re also a bit confused about the role of antibiotics in meat production. As someone who works for pig farmers who raise the animals, I am concerned too, but for a different reason.
It’s actually quite simple – produce healthy livestock, get safe food. And lately, there’s been a lot of conversation around “antibiotic-free” meat. People are understandably concerned following news reports about antibiotic resistance and other headline-grabbing terms. However, it’s important to clarify the story.
To be clear, the meat you eat is safe due to FDA rules and USDA testing. This discussion is not actually about what is in your food. When you see antibiotic-free meat on a menu or on a food label, it means the animals were raised without the use of antibiotics. Some believe that the quick fix to the complex problem of antibiotic resistance is to “just say no” to antibiotic use. Period. But just like in human medicine, “zero antibiotics” is not an option for pigs.
As parents, we do everything we can to make sure that we have access to medicine that works when our children get sick. Pig farmers have a similar obligation to use medicine as needed to treat or prevent illness in pigs. They look for ways to reduce the need for antibiotic medicine on the farm. This is part of our commitment to continuous improvement in caring for pigs.
However, completely eliminating antibiotics would leave farmers with no treatment options for diseases to which pigs are susceptible. We can all agree that it is unethical to deny treatment to a sick animal or to not use the tools we have to prevent the onset of illness that could wipe out an entire herd at one time.
I know it can be confusing to the average meat consumer. Even popular restaurant chains can’t seem to get it right, judging by Subway’s recent announcement that they’ll only serve protein raised by animals who haven’t received antibiotics. As Chipotle also found, that’s not always possible.
That’s why our industry is focused on responsible antibiotic use. That means pig farmers embrace new federal guidelines that both include veterinarian oversight and removal of medically important antibiotics to promote a pig’s growth. Educating farmers and consumers is a priority. It is why we collaborate with our partners across the industry to ensure that all pig farmers know about the new FDA regulations and antibiotic stewardship.
Our pig farmers understand the issue and accept our responsibility to be good stewards of antibiotics. Our world is at a turning point for antibiotic use in both human and animal health. Our solutions cannot be short term. When issues are complex, we need to look at the big picture: Safe food, healthy animals and to make sure that medicines keep working – for people and pigs.
It’s simply the right thing to do.
Deborah Johnson is chief executive officer of the N.C. Pork Council.