by Sally Colby

The demand for animal protein products derived from animals raised without antibiotics is on the rise in the United States, but there are concerns about the potential impact on animal welfare.

“We know that ensuring the safety, health and overall well-being of animals raised for food is an ethical obligation,” said veterinarian Randall Singer, professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota. “I say that as a veterinarian, as someone who works in animal agriculture and as a consumer.”

At the Animal Agriculture Alliance Summit held in Arlington, VA, Singer presented the results of a survey of veterinarians and producers regarding the impact on animals raised with no antibiotics ever.

Singer said there have been numerous changes in the way antibiotics are used in food animal agriculture, and that many producers have reduced or eliminated antibiotics entirely. “That has been fast-growing in the poultry sector,” he said, “but all of the commodity groups have seen this trend of moving toward more production in a ‘raised without antibiotics’ (RWA) system.” Singer mentioned the many terms associated with RWA, including “no antibiotics ever,” “antibiotic-free” and “never ever,” but used the term RWA for survey purposes.

In one section of the survey, participants currently participating in RWA programs were asked why they converted to RWA. “To fulfill a client or customer request is the major reason everyone across the commodities gave for why they are raising animals without antibiotics,” said Singer. Other factors, including increasing sale price and gaining market entry into a retail program, were also top reasons for enrolling in an RWA program. Of low importance to RWA respondents were decreasing antibiotic resistance, improving animal welfare and eliminating the use of medically important antibiotics.

Conventional producers were asked why they were not currently participating in RWA programs. The major driver (94 percent) was that these producers were concerned about the negative impacts to animal health and welfare without the option of using antibiotics to treat illnesses. In addition, more than half of the respondents said they were already raising animals in a responsible antibiotic use program.

“I want us to think carefully about what it means to state that you are RWA,” said Singer. “You are never going to use antibiotics, at least if you are going to label it with your brand name, versus believing antibiotics do play a role in raising animals and maintaining health and welfare, and you enter into a responsible use program.” Singer said there is a label for a responsible use program, and other labels are being discussed.

Regarding food safety, the majority of respondents believed that there was either no change to food safety or that raising animals without antibiotics worsens food safety. “That is from either RWA experience or the opinion of the conventional respondents about shifting to an RWA system,” said Singer. “The second part of the question asks ‘In your opinion, how do retailers/restaurants/food services think raised without antibiotics production impacts food safety?’ Respondents, whether veterinarians or producers, believe that customers think food safety is being improved even though they responded that food safety is being worsened. That is quite a disparity in response.”

For health and welfare, respondents were asked “How do you think raised without antibiotics production impacts animal health and welfare?” “Most of the respondents think that RWA production is either slightly worsening or significantly worsening animal health and welfare,” said Singer. “For customers purchasing RWA, according to the respondents (veterinarians and producers), their perception is that animal health and welfare are being significantly improved by RWA production, whereas their experience is that it is significantly worsened.” Singer said this gap is the most dramatic difference in the survey.

The overall perception of both producers and veterinarians is that RWA production significantly increases the cost of production. When asked how RWA impacts the overall demand for a specific protein, such as from beef, poultry or swine (rather than the animals specifically), most respondents said there would be either no change or a slight increase. “It’s hard for me to imagine how that is a positive return on investment when you have a significant increase in cost,” said Singer, “but most were thinking there was not going to be much of a significant increase in demand.”

Singer said one set of results was particularly troubling to him. The statement was phrased “There are times that maintaining an RWA label has priority over flock/herd health and welfare.” Many of the respondents stated that they somewhat agreed or strongly agreed. “As a person working in the industry and as a consumer, I am concerned,” said Singer. “I would hope to never see health and welfare are being sacrificed at the expense of a label.”

Most participants, including those already in RWA programs, agreed that RWA production should include more stringent auditing and assessment of health and welfare. Respondents were also asked to provide an opinion on the statement “Antibiotic use in my animals does not cause problems in humans.” Most respondents, including RWA producers, agreed that antibiotic use does not cause problems in humans.

“How does RWA even fit in there?” said Singer, adding that those respondents may have replied with a general opinion. “Even within RWA production systems, there are times those animals will be diseased and require antibiotics, so they may be responding based on that event. Regardless, most respondents are saying that they agree with the statement that ‘use of antibiotics does not cause problems in humans.’”

In general, respondents said the use of antibiotics in their animals may make it more difficult to treat infections in the future. However, the majority of the same respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that antibiotic use in animals may lead to bacterial infections in humans that are more difficult to treat.

Would producers be willing to treat animals with alternatives to antibiotics if those treatments were equally effective? Respondents for all species overwhelming agreed or strongly agreed. “With commodity-specific disease challenges, statements about the gap we have for intervention also helps direct us toward a research program of ‘where are disease problems in production that need help?’” said Singer. “We already knew what the disease challenges were and how ineffective many of our control strategies are. As many of us know, nothing works like an antibiotic.”

Singer reiterated market drive and fulfilling a client/customer request as the main reasons for producers entering an RWA program. “Market entry and sale price were also important,” he said. “If you look at why conventional producers are not going RWA, concerns about negative impacts to animal health and welfare are by far the most important choice they made, and many of them said they were already in a responsible antibiotic use program.”

A significant finding in the survey was a huge discrepancy between what the respondents believe and the perception of respondents about what the customer or retailer believes. “Respondents across all the commodities believe that RWA worsens animal health and welfare, whereas they think their customers believe health and welfare are significantly improved,” said Singer. “That is a major communication gap that somehow we have to close.”