The widespread, routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture in the U.S. contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance, which basically means bacteria adapt to outsmart the drugs. Since many are the same ones used in human medicine, that results in at least tens of thousands of deaths each year (and more by some estimates). The issue has been identified as one of the biggest global public health threats by the World Health Organization.
Because of that, advocates have been fighting to get the meat industry and food companies to reduce or end the use of medically important antibiotics in feed and water as a preventative measure for years.
In poultry, they've been incredibly successful. While some believe companies may overstate their success due to a lack of accountability or swap in new pharmaceuticals, every available metric points to the fact that over the past decade, the use of medically important antibiotics in chicken production has plummeted. In 2019, about 60% of chickens raised for meat were labeled "no antibiotics ever," up from 13% in 2015. Perdue, the fourth largest poultry company in the U.S., now makes that claim for 100% of its chicken products. Other big poultry companies like Sanderson Farms and food outlets like McDonald's and KFC have policies that eliminate the use of "medically important" antibiotics.
Cattle (raised for both milk and meat) and pigs, however, are still routinely given those critical drugs in feed and water for long periods of time, and common wisdom is that the industries have been slow to change because "it's a lot harder" or even "can't be done" without destroying the current system and starting from scratch.
That's not quite true. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that pork and beef can both be produced with farmers only using antibiotics rarely, to treat sick animals. And there are models that show it can be done at nearly any scale.
"The beef and pork industries are not moving as quickly as the chicken industry partially because it's not quite as easy, but that does not mean it's not possible," said Emily Scarr, the state director of Maryland PIRG who led a coalition to pass the strongest state law to regulate antibiotic use in animal agriculture in the country.
Small, organic farms that raise very few animals at a time already don't typically use preventive antibiotics in feed or water. Companies like Niman Ranch have created systems that allow them to produce antibiotic-free pork and beef at a significant scale — they count national chains like Chipotle among their consumers — by working with mid-size farms that raise their animals in lower stress environments that include outdoor access. And in Denmark, one of the world's biggest pork exporters, Danish farmers have slashed antibiotic use even within their industrial confinement systems that look a lot like conventional pork production in the U.S. Across Europe, similar gains are being made.
So, what do those models look like, and why aren't more farms in the U.S. making progress?
Reducing antibiotic use in pork production
Tim and Deleana Roseland run Roseland Family Farms in Central Iowa with their son, Curt. The farm has been in their family for generations. Tim's parents and grandparents raised hogs and cattle and grew corn, and when Tim took over, he decided to focus on hogs. In the 1980s and 90s, the family raised pigs in confinement and sold them into the conventional market.
After the market for pigs crashed at the turn of the century, the Roselands sought out a more financially stable option, and they found Niman Ranch. They filled in the manure pits inside their barns, opened the barns up so the pigs could go outside and began using corn stalks they grew to create a deep layer of bedding on what was once a concrete floor. In 2005, they began selling their pigs to Niman and have been ever since.
In the old system, "If you wanted the pigs to stay healthy, you ran antibiotics all the time," Tim said. "That was just part of life." But because Niman sells meat labeled "no antibiotics ever," farmers in the network must avoid using routine preventive antibiotics. When they have to treat a sick animal, that animal is separated out and sold into the conventional market, which means they lose money.
But the Roselands had no trouble acclimating to a system in which they'd have to raise healthy pigs without giving them antibiotics in their feed. "It's not a big deal. We haven't really had any issues," Tim said matter-of-factly.
Deleana noticed right away that the pigs were happier and healthier based on the changes they'd made to the farm. "[Before], the pigs were so much more stressed. When you went into the buildings, there'd be this high volume of squealing . . . that we just don't have now. Now they just run and play," she said. "The combination of more room, the bedding, and being able to go outside make a big difference to them."
Niman's approach is considered alternative or niche in the U.S., but in Europe, industrial, global pork companies have also reduced their antibiotic use within confinement systems. According to a 2018 NRDC report, U.S. producers use about double the antibiotics per kilogram of pig compared to the U.K., more than three times as much as in France, and more than seven times the levels used in Denmark or the Netherlands. Between 2009 and 2018, antibiotic use in Danish pork production fell 27%, and it had already been falling significantly before that.
Producers there have made changes to feed and cleaning protocols, but the biggest changes that have made reductions possible fall into the same category as the changes the Roseland's noted: reducing stress. Just like in humans, stress increases disease risk in pigs, and tweaks like adequate space are meaningful. In addition to lower stocking densities, one important practice Danish producers have adopted is keeping piglets with their mothers longer, which reduces stress at a time when the pigs' immune systems are not yet fully developed. Research shows longer weaning times can reduce piglet mortality significantly. In 2013, the European Commission set 28 days as the minimum weaning age for piglets; in the U.S., average weaning times are around 20 days, which means many farms are doing it even sooner.
Reducing antibiotic use in beef production
Weaning time is key to reducing antibiotic use in beef, too, said Joseph Fischer, of Fischer Farms in Southern Indiana. Not only does it reduce stress among the animals, but "if you wean them later, they get a much longer time period of getting their mother's milk . . . [and] that immune system that she's developed can be passed through the milk," he said.
Like the Roselands, Fischer Farms is a multi-generation family farm, and for many years, the family ran a conventional cow-calf operation and grew row crops. About two decades ago, Fischer's father decided he wanted to improve the quality of their beef and since they couldn't find a conventional market for higher-quality beef, they began selling their meat directly to local restaurants and institutions.
"We wanted to raise our cattle naturally, from start to finish," Fischer explained, and for them, part of that model was reducing antibiotic use. "What you have to do if you're not using antibiotics on your farm is you have to set up your process across all components of that cow's life to be low disease risk."
In addition to pushing weaning to six months, which is significantly longer than typical, they changed other aspects of the calving process to reduce stress on the young animals. Fischer Farms' cattle are not 100% grassfed, but in addition to grazing, Fischer supplements their diet with corn silage, feeding them a much lower-grain diet than if the cattle were sent to a feedlot. "Liver abscesses . . . are from the very high-energy diets that have been given to cattle late in their lives," Fischer explains, and common antibiotics in feed and water are often administered in feedlots to prevent those abscesses.
And not only do Fischer's cattle never see a feedlot, the only trip they ever go on is a five minute trip to the processing plant. That means he also doesn't have to worry about bovine respiratory disease (BRD), a common disease among herds of cattle that are shipped long distances and mingled with herds from various places. Preventing BRD is another typical use for routine, preventative antibiotics in feedlots.
A 2020 NRDC report pointed to many of the practices Fischer mentioned as part of an "uncomplicated" set of best practices — like tweaking feed and adjusting calving and transport practices — some of which could be adopted even by large feedlots to reduce the need for routine, preventive antibiotics.
If models exist, why aren't more farms reducing antibiotic use?
While the practices might be relatively uncomplicated, farmers like Fischer are generally faced with buyers who are locked into the current system and just want the fattest cattle possible.
"From a production standpoint, it's hard to justify raising their cattle differently and a lot of times at more expense, if at the end of the line, they're not going to promise you a premium for that product," he said. Fischer Farms made the choice to seek out alternative buyers, but that's not possible for every farm.
When a market does exist, it makes the transition easier. The Roselands, for example, were driven to invest time and labor into changing their farm to fit into Niman's system specifically because they knew Niman was waiting to pay them higher, more consistent prices for their pigs.
A premium can act as an incentive, but policy changes can lead to bigger system-wide changes. In Denmark, progress has come via "both a carrot and a stick. It's been a combination," said David Wallinga, MD, a senior health officer at the NRDC who works on ending the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Denmark changed laws that allowed veterinarians to profit off of antibiotic prescriptions, began tracking all antibiotic use on farms, and set national targets for reductions, with consequences for producers that missed the targets.
In the U.S., federal policymakers have been slow to act. There is little to no tracking of antibiotic use on farms, and while the law technically ended the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion, there is little regulation of routine use for disease prevention (which involves many of the same drugs).
States have stepped in with their own models. In Maryland, advocates successfully pushed through a law that banned the routine use of medically important antibiotics for disease prevention and introduced new requirements for tracking antibiotic use on farms. This year, the Maryland Department of Agriculture released its first report in line with the law's requirements, which provided specific information on individual drugs prescribed to treat animals divided by industry.
"The biggest success is that the report exists," Scarr said. "Next year, we'll have a before and after." Scarr hopes the Maryland law will be used as a model for other states that want to move on the issue, but while Wallinga agreed that the mere existence of real data on antibiotic use is a big step forward, he said a stronger federal policy response would be the thing that really moves the needle.
"It doesn't really make sense to do this state by state . . . because you're going to be doing it 50 different ways," he said. With all of the models that already exist for both national policies that work and the practices necessary to reduce antibiotic use on farms, he said, the U.S. should be making bigger strides. Aside from the ban on use for growth promotion only and strengthening veterinary oversight, little has been done to set explicit reduction goals at the federal level, and there is currently no indication that will change anytime soon. One policy that would better regulate the length of time antibiotics are administered to animals is in the works, but under the current FDA plan, some of the limits would not go into effect until 2030. And experts say the country is lagging behind on the most basic front, in terms of even having data to show exactly which drugs are being used and how.
In Denmark, a national system collects data on antibiotic use in animal agriculture electronically. "In fact, I asked the Danish experts at one point . . . 'Would you share that software?'" Wallinga said. "They said, 'Absolutely.' The information is there..it's just waiting for FDA to collect it. I think it's doable."