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Antibiotic Use in Cattle: A Quick Overview

03 March 2015

Concern abounds when discussing the issue of antibiotics in the livestock industry, but lots is being done to minimise environmental and public health risks while considering the safety of the animal.

This is according to animal science and iochemistry pre-med student and Beef Ambassador, Will Pohlman, from Arkansas who writes about the importance of antibiotics in animal welfare. 

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Will Pohlman raises purebred Angus cattle, Hampshire sheep and commercial ewes and has progressed to be a national beef advocate through the Check-Off's Beef Ambassador programme.

Furthermore, he reassures antibiotics are used responsibly by producers, are safe and monitored closely. 

There is a growing concern about the safety of the American food supply and this includes antibiotics use in meat animals, Will writes.

  • Why do beef producers use antibiotics?
  • Are these antibiotics safe?
  • Do these antibiotics make it to the plate and impact human health?

Here’s a quick overview of antibiotic use in cattle.

Cattle Get Sick!

Sometimes we get sick, and often antibiotics can help us get well quicker. Cattle are no different! I’m currently in a Livestock Disease’s class and something I’ve learned so far is there are a lot of ways an animal can get sick - a lot.

Treating illness in cattle is part of cattlemen’s commitment to welfare and care for their animals. What’s more, many of the diseases contracted by cattle are often transmissible to humans. So it is pertinent to treat sick cattle not only for the care and well being of the animal, but also to protect human health.

Antibiotics are SAFE

Just like drugs for human use, antibiotics used on cattle go through stringent testing for safety by the Food and Drug Administration. These drugs are evaluated not only for their safety for the animal, but also safety for humans and the environment too. It takes many years for a drug to make it from the lab, through rigorous testing, and onto shelves at farm stores.

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Rigorous testing and monitoring helps ensure antibiotic use in beef cattle is safe, writes Will.

Residues are Constantly Monitored

Some people are concerned about residues, or leftover antibiotics, making it to the table and impacting human health. However these residues are constantly monitored and tested through the U.S. National Residue Program to ensure no violations are made.

The latest testing cycle in 2013-2014 found 99.96 per cent compliance in beef. Part of drug testing is to determine withdrawal times, the time it takes for the drug to clear the animal, and producers work closely with their veterinarians to ensure these times are followed. In fact new legislative changes will require more veterinary oversight for the use of antibiotics to further ensure proper use.

Antibiotics used for Growth

Certain antibiotics can be given to cattle to improve their growth. This is accomplished through reduction of harmful bacteria and increasing the efficiency of the gut. While legislative changes are evaluating this use, it is important to realize that common antibiotics used for growth promotion are not critical to human health. Ionophores are widely used to control the levels of certain bacteria in the cow’s rumen and have never been shown to have use in human health.

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