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Antibiotics and Farm Animals: My Fears Put to Rest

My husband and I often get asked questions about our farm, and sometimes, the misleading information out there really gets to us.  For example, some people believe that visitors aren’t allowed in barns because the farmers have something to hide.  However, we do not allow visitors in our turkey barns because of the chance that they’ll carry in a disease that could wipe out our flock. We have nothing to hide; we just have birds to protect.
“Help Prevent Disease: Please do not enter without permission.”
There was one question, however, that I didn’t know the truth about. The question was about the “sub-therapeutic” use of antibiotics and the suggestion that they pose a risk to human health. So, I asked my husband whether or not we use antibiotics to promote growth. I’ll admit, I lost some sleep worrying about the idea that we were putting human health at risk in order to raise our turkeys. He assured me that everything we do is safe, and I needn’t worry.

But I’m a modern (stubborn, skeptical) woman, and I wasn’t totally convinced. I have two little boys – I really wanted to make sure that we, as a farm, and we, as an industry, weren’t doing something that would endanger them.
Instead of taking my husband’s word for it, I talked to the experts. I spoke with vets and animal scientists with a string of letters after their names. I weaseled myself into a seat next to them at lunch last fall at the Iowa Turkey Federation Convention, interrupted one of them during breakfast at a recent area meeting for turkey farmers, and called one in his office as recently as yesterday.

As I’ve said before, I believe we should leave animal health decisions to the experts, and trust me, these guys are experts. I almost needed a translator to understand what they were saying at times (although that could be because of Dr. Mills’ northern Wisconsin accent.)

But after their lengthy explanations and scientific statistics, here’s the bottom line – I’m no longer worried. Our local turkey and hog vet, whose son will be in Adam’s class, assured me that he’s never lost sleep over the issue. He’s a former delegate to the American Veterinary Medical Association and current Vice-President of the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association. He told me that there isn’t sufficient data to study a link between antibiotic use in food animals to antibiotic resistance in humans. (source) And I’m pretty sure that he knows more about antibiotics than I’ll ever know about anything.

Another V.M.D, Ph.D., DACPV explained how the term “growth promoter” was coined in the first place. He said that when animals were first given antibiotics back in the 1940s, farmers and scientists didn’t know why they were getting bigger, but they were! Now, according to Dr. Robert Owen, animal scientists understand antibiotics are working “to make a healthier environment within the intestine, and because it’s healthier, the animal feels better, the animal digests better, and the animal absorbs nutrients better.  And what would we expect to be the outcome of having a healthier intestine?  They would grow better.”

And Dr. Mills, the third expert I spoke with? Well, he told me something, but I couldn’t understand it because of the big words he used and that darn accent I mentioned earlier. Then he told us how his family spent Thanksgiving “planking” on the kitchen island and how he once fell out of a boat on Little Wall Lake and thought he was going to have to tread water while his inexperienced wife tried to get help from shore, only to find out the “lake” was just waist deep.

Anyway, the FDA has made new guidelines aimed at limiting the use of antibiotics on farms. I’m not sure exactly how it will affect us yet, but I do know this: I’m not losing any more sleep over animals and antibiotics. My fears have been put to rest.

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  2. I really appreciate this. As a chemist, it annoys me to no end to see so much misuse of scientific rhetoric and theories for the sake of advancing pseudo-scientific trends (organic foods,vaccinations,the BPA hype etc). Thanks for seeking out people who actually study these mechanisms. It's refreshing!

  3. Hi Katie,

    Great post! I did the tweeting thing and i am doing (read TRYING) the google+ thing so i hope some more people read your post!!!

    Big hugs