Antibiotics play an important role in the health and safety of livestock production and are as important to the industry as they are for human health. Antibiotics kill and destroy bacteria and can be used to control, prevent, or treat diseases for humans and livestock. Poultry producers have incorporated antibiotics use into their flocks as needed for many years. However, it has been a growing concern for consumers that antibiotics may be used to often and that it may be unnecessary at times which could lead to human health concerns upon consumption.
Antibiotics in poultry are used in several different ways. When an illness is introduced into a flock antibiotics can be used to help fight the bacteria and treat the infection. They are also used as a way to control outbreaks by reducing the spread of bacteria. Often times antibiotics are used as a preventative method. In poultry houses the feed and water is shared by thousands of chickens which can lead to an easy spread of bacteria and disease. Using antibiotics can help prevent the entry of a pathogen to the flock. For many years antibiotics were used for growth promotion by destroying bacteria in the gut that decrease the FCR but this is not widely done anymore due to concerns from the consumer, since it is seen as unnecessary. Although antibiotics can still be used in poultry, the FDA has placed regulations that all farmers must ensure that their animals are completely free of antibiotics in their system before it can be slaughtered for food.
When using antibiotics for growth promotion special health concerns arise. In this manner low doses of antibiotics are given over the lifespan to help improve feed conversion and muscle production. By exposing the bacteria in a chickens gut to these low doses for long periods of time it is possible for the bacteria to build up an immunity to the drug and because of this problem, as of 2017 the FDA no longer allows antibiotics to be used for growth promotion.
In order to meet consumers preferences, needs, and demands, the industry has come up with different varieties and ways of raising poultry. Some companies use different methods of using antibiotics and some don’t use them at all. These companies can choose to grow their flock under different labels of organic, no antibiotics, or non-GMOs. Under organic conditions, the flock must not use antibiotics for anything other than when it is medically necessary. Antibiotics can be used before hatch but must remain drug-free starting at one day of age. It is illegal to withhold treatment from a sick bird but once they have been given antibiotics they can no longer be sold under the organic label. Birds under these conditions must be inspected and certified to receive an organic label. Chickens raised under the no antibiotics label are never given antibiotics even while they have not hatched yet. Non-GMO chickens must be fed with feed containing less than .9% genetically modified feed but can still be given antibiotics.
When raising birds under the no antibiotics label there are advantages and disadvantages. Advantages include not spending money on antibiotics, being able to use non-antibiotic labeled health products, and consumers are willing to pay more for meat products raised without antibiotics. The disadvantages are a much higher risk of the entire flock becoming infected from an ill bird without being able to treat, greatly increases the environmental effect of raising the same amount of meat, and reduces the sustainability of the industry significantly.
Among health concerns of antibiotics in the meat and drug resistant bacteria, it is a growing concern that using antibiotics in livestock takes away from the availability of those antibiotics for use in humans. However, data shows that the antibiotics mostly used in animals are different from those commonly used for humans. The most common antibiotics used in animals and poultry are tetracyclines and ionophores while penicillin and cephalosporins are the most commonly used for humans.
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