Cargill Cutting Back On Antibiotics In Its Beef

Image courtesy of (Teresa RS)

While several large chicken producers and buyers have made efforts to reduce the non-medical use of antibiotics, the beef industry has not been as quick to respond to growing concern among the medical community, and consumers at large, about the overuse of these medically important drugs in cows. But beef biggie Cargill has announced a plan to cut back on the vital antibiotics it provides to its bovines.

Cargill says it is eliminating 20% of “shared-class” antibiotics from its feed yards in Texas, Kansas, and Colorado, along with four feed yards operated by its partners at Friona Industries. In total, Cargill says this change will reduce antibiotic use in around 1.2 million cattle per year.

Shared-class antibiotics are those that antimicrobials that have been deemed medically important for both humans and animals.

While you and I need to get a prescription from a doctor for these antibiotics, farmers can purchase them from farm supply stores without any sort of prescription or veterinary directive.

These drugs represent the overwhelming majority of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration asked drug companies to stop selling antibiotics to farmers for solely growth-promotion purposes.

However, since most of the drugs used in animal feed are also approved for medical use, very few products were actually removed from the market, and the most recent FDA report shows that the agency’s efforts have not had any significant effect in curbing antibiotic overuse.

Critics of antibiotic use point out that while farmers claim to use low doses of these drugs as a prophylactic measure to prevent disease, the reality is that providing sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to farm animals can help to encourage the development of bacteria that is resistant to the very drugs the animals are being fed.

A recent study out of China showed that sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in pig farming resulted in huge increases in the number of antibiotic-resistant genes in the region, when compared to an antibiotic-free site in a similar region.

Drug-resistant bacteria make some 2 million American sick every year, and kill more than 20,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Earlier this year, researchers showed that a superbug resistant to colistin — an antibiotic of last resort — had turned up in 19 different countries.

Food animals generally go through an antibiotic-free stage before they are slaughtered, with the intention of minimizing the presence of the drugs in meat sold to consumers. However, studies have shown that more than 75% of antibiotics fed to farm animals during their lives passes through their systems un-metabolized, resulting in animal waste that contains the drugs.

Which might explain why a 2007 study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine and School of Public Health found that poultry workers were more than five times more likely to carry multi-drug resistant E. coli bacteria compared to other community members.

“Our decision to eliminate 20% of the antibiotics used in our beef cattle, which are also used for human health, took into consideration customer and consumer desires to help ensure the long-term medical effectiveness of antibiotics for both people and animals,” explains John Keating, president of Cargill’s Wichita-based beef business. “We need to balance those desires with our commitment to ensure the health of animals raised for food, which contributes to the production of safer food.”

One of the reasons that poultry producers have been more willing to reduce antibiotics is that chickens and turkeys eat less and have shorter lives. Because cattle live longer, it’s not as easy to flip the switch and go drug-free. But Keating acknowledges in his statement that there is more the company could do in the future.

“Scientific research and yet-to-be-discovered innovative technologies could certainly help us further reduce, or eliminate, the need for antibiotics in the beef supply chain,” he says.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.