The issue of antibiotic use in food producing animals is not as black and white as it may seem. There are a lot of brands out there today that boast claims of “no antibiotics ever” or “raised without antibiotics” on their packaging, but what do these claims really mean? Should people avoid buying other products because they may contain unsafe levels of antibiotic residue? Are antibiotics inherently bad? In this post, I will do my best to answer these questions, outline how antibiotics are used on our farm, and explain why this issue is so complex.
In the United States, farmers are permitted to use antibiotics to control, prevent, or treat illness in livestock. All are required to adhere to established withdrawal periods before animals treated with antibiotics or other medications can be slaughtered for human consumption. The same goes for animals used for milk and egg production. In this sense, all animal products that enter the supply chain are free from antibiotics, and can be considered equally safe.
When used correctly, antibiotics can be a wonderful thing. For example, in 2022, one of our goat kids was born blind, or so we thought. It turned out that she had contracted pinkeye in utero, which is rare but not unheard of. Using a single dose of a medication called Draxxin, our vet was able to restore her vision and she grew up without any further medical issues. She is now a promising young goat who will join our milking herd next year.
I can’t claim that we never use antibiotics on our farm, but I can say that when we do use them, we do so responsibly and in a manner that allows us to be completely transparent with our customers. Our policy is to use antibiotics only when medically necessary. We never use antibiotics to promote growth (a practice that has been banned in the U.S. since 2017) and we have only used antibiotics preventatively in one instance. In this particular case, we had just had two goats miscarry within a 24 period, so we chose to treat the remaining pregnant does that had been housed with them in case their abortions were caused by campylobacter. Although we did not yet have a confirmed diagnosis, we felt that the benefits of preventative treatment outweighed the risks, and we wanted to do whatever we possibly could to give our other goats a fighting chance of carrying their pregnancies to term and delivering healthy babies.
I can count on my fingers the number of animals that I’ve administered antibiotics to in the past year, always under the guidance of our veterinary team. From our records, I can also determine the clinical symptoms that the animal exhibited before treatment, the type of medication that was used, the dosage, the date of the treatment, and for how long the medication would remain in the animal’s system. None of the goats that I’ve treated within the past year were milking at the time, but if one was, I would have milked her separately from the others and discarded her milk for a period of time as specified by the drug label or by our veterinarian.
Antibiotics are perfectly safe for use in food producing animals when carefully administered under the appropriate circumstances. On our farm, we practice holistic management, focusing on keeping animals healthy to begin with so that antibiotic treatment is rarely necessary. However, even with the best management, animals sometimes can become ill or injured and require antibiotics in order to heal. It is our belief that it is unethical to deny an animal effective treatment just because it would disallow the use of a certain labeling claim.
The trouble with such labeling claims is that they force us to assess a producer’s track record of antibiotic use with a simple yes or no. Using binary terms does not allow us to gauge how judicious the producer is with their use of antibiotics, and simply opting not to use them at all isn’t always the best answer. Instead of relying on labels, we should be developing relationships with local farmers and opening dialogues about HOW they use antibiotics in their operations to establish a level of transparency and trust within our food system that allows room for the responsible use of antibiotics when necessary.