Big Beef, Its Antibiotics Habit, and Protecting Our Future


David Wallinga, MD, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

June 25, 2020


In the midst of the biggest health crisis of the past 100 years, I can’t stop thinking about U.S. meat producers overusing antibiotics, and how that practice undercuts the future health of the nation.


It’s no secret that overusing and misusing antibiotics drives worsening antibiotic resistance. Yet nearly as many antibiotics of medical importance are sold in the U.S. for cattle use as for human medicine (5.6 million pounds of antibiotic active ingredient vs. 7.5 million pounds, respectively). The newly released NRDC report, Better Burgers: Why It’s High Time the U.S. Beef Industry Kicked Its Antibiotic Habit, provides crucial insight on why that is so, and why it needs to stop.


U.S. beef feedlots routinely feed medically important antibiotics—mostly macrolides and tetracylines, which are used in people to treat sepsis, certain pneumonias, and UTIs that can turn life-threatening—at low doses to entire herds even when no cattle are sick, the report shows. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers this practice to be unnecessary and dangerous, precisely because it contributes to the proliferation and spread of antibiotic resistance.


Operators and their veterinarians claim these routine antibiotics are an essential crutch for ‘preventing’ disease on feedlots where other practices and conditions that promote disease remain unchanged. These uses are anything but essential.


Better Burgers shows that many or even most of the antibiotics used could be avoided altogether if feedlots were to focus instead on using non-antibiotic means to promote cattle health by changing feedlot conditions. For example, Figure 3 illustrates that a large majority of these precious medicines are used to “prevent” liver abscesses or to address the risks from respiratory disease; both problems can be effectively reduced or prevented on feedlots altogether through better diets and cattle management practices.


If anything, U.S. feedlots today are experiencing more cattle illnesses and deaths due to liver abscesses and shipping fever, not less, according to industry vets and infrequent USDA surveys. The paradox is that feedlot cattle seem to be getting sicker at the same time that feeding them antibiotics routinely is touted as an essential tool for preventing disease.


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