Story Bank: USING ANTIBIOTICS WISELY with NICOLETTE HAHN NIMAN
There are two main types of antibiotics, which have different effects on animals. Nicolette Niman describes these terms, explaining why therapeutic antibiotics can be beneficial, while sub-therapeutic antibiotics tend to be harmful.
Douglas Gayeton: Why did you become interested in the use of antibiotics in meat?
Nicolette Niman: My interest in this issue started when I was working as an environmental lawyer. We became aware that the vast majority of antibiotics in the United States every year are actually used in animal agriculture. They are used on animals that are not sick to speed up their growth and enable the crowded conditions for their housing. This is a huge environmental issue because antibiotic-resistant bacteria and antibiotic residue are potentially on the food and in the environment, including the soil and water that are affected by these farming operations.
DG: Concerning antibiotics, what would you list as the top considerations people should take into account while looking at meat options?
NN: The biggest problem with using antibiotics in animal farming is the potential for their overuse. They’re commonly misused on a daily basis in the United States. When they are overused by continually putting them in daily feed, the population of bacteria evolved on the farm becomes very resistant to these drugs. When humans come in contact with those bacteria, either by being on the farm or by eating the food products from that farm, a person can contract an illness impossible to treat with antibiotics. It’s a huge human health issue.
DG: Can you give me your definition of therapeutic antibiotics?
NN: Therapeutic antibiotics are a specific dose of antibiotics used for a limited period of time and in an amount calculated for an individual animal to cure an individual disease. It’s similar to when you go to a doctor and you get a prescription. There’s a set amount of medicine that treats an illness caused by particular bacteria. The dose has been calculated very carefully by pharmaceutical companies and the medical industry. If you take the full dose of antibiotics, you will wipe out nearly all of the bacteria that exists in the human or animal body with that dosage.
DG: Can you give me your definition for sub- therapeutic antibiotics and any implications of this?
NN: Sub-therapeutic antibiotics have a low level dosage used for an extended period of time on healthy cattle or other animals. They’re mainly used to increase their daily weight gain. The mechanism for this is not totally understood, but when antibiotics are given to animals on a continuous, low-level basis, they actually gain weight faster. All animals are sold based on their weight. From the farmer’s or rancher’s perspective, it makes a lot of sense to try to get the animal to a higher weight as quickly as possible because it saves them money.
DG: So antibiotics can have a number of functions for a farmer?
NN: There are two totally different uses. One is for treating an individual animal that is actually sick and treating it with the prescribed dose. This usage of therapeutic antibiotics has not been shown to contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The sub-therapeutic antibiotics, where animals are continually being given this low dose, repeatedly foster the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In my opinion, using antibiotics to treat an individual animal’s illness is entirely defensible and actually a good practice. However, the overuse of antibiotics is a totally unacceptable practice.
Nicolette Hahn Niman is an attorney and livestock rancher. She is a passionate advocate of sustainable food production who wrote the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009), and numerous essays for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. She has given talks contrasting industrial production with sustainable farming all over the United States. Previously, she was Senior Attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper, where she was in charge of the organization’s campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry. She lives in Northern California with her son, Miles, and her husband, Bill Niman. Bill founded Niman Ranch, a natural meat company supplied by over 700 traditional farmers and ranchers. The Nimans now sell meat from their ranch under the name BN Ranch.