Ask a grass-fed cattle farmer, pretty much any grass-fed cattle farmer, about antibiotics and you will be greeted by a reaction that is a mix of defensive and dumbfounded, a reaction that is so uniform that you’d think they were reading off their talking points like a party politician.
Farmers insist that it would be inhumane to deny an animal antibiotics if their health or life depended on them. Just like we need to be medicated when we are sick, sometimes animals need to be medicated. One New Zealand farmer I spoke to said that he gives antibiotics to about 2 out of 1,000 cattle in any given year and then they have a 30 day waiting period before the animal can be sent to slaughter. This is basically what the claim “never fed sub-therapeutic antibiotics” means.
Personally, I would prefer to eat 100% antibiotic-free meat, but I realize that position is either: 1) rather elitist of me and/or 2) a slap in the face of animal welfare. Those who claim to sell “never-ever” meat simply put the medicated animal into separate production of 100% antibiotic-fed meat, so somebody is eating it, just not me. And, if the animal is not treated it could suffer needlessly from an infection.
I suspect that the reason why grass-fed farmers are often defensive about this question is because they feel that urbanites don’t understand that to deny antibiotics to an animal who is suffering is inherently inhumane. The grass-fed
farmers who I have met care deeply about the animals that they are raising. The reality is that animals that live on grass, with space, in a natural environment seldom need antibiotics so they are used sparingly in grass-fed operations.
The big problem arises when antibiotics are administered as a matter of practice and in large volumes. In North America, farmers order antibiotics from a catalog just like they order corn and they administer those antibiotics routinely to all of their animals. Feedlot cattle are fed antibiotics with their food because in a confined and crowded environment, a steady regimen of antibiotics is necessary to keep the animals growing and alive.
In New Zealand, antibiotics can only be administered by a vet to treat sick animals, there is a 30 day waiting period before that animal can be sent to the abbatoir and violation of this rule is apparently punished mercilessly by the authorities. I’m not sure if residues remain in the meat after 30 days, but maybe?
At this point I agree with the ranchers. If antibiotics are used extremely sparingly and administered only by a veterinarian, then we should treat sick animals rather than let them suffer. If that means that a small quantity of antibiotics enters the food supply, then that is a consequence that we should live with. There’s so many variables to balance. What do you think?