On the premises of the farmers who produce antibiotic-free meat

Nearly forty years ago, Ron Mardesen and his wife Denise stopped using antibiotics on their pig farm, A-Frame Acres, in Elliot, Iowa. He decided there was a better way to raise his animals that didn’t require routine antibiotics. After prioritizing clean feed, fresh air, comfortable bedding and ample space, he says his pigs began to thrive. In 2002, Mardesen began selling his pork to Niman Ranch, a network of independent family farmers who raise livestock without antibiotics or added hormones.

As the owner of a multi-generational farm, Mardesen has seen industrial agriculture and factory farming increasingly take control of meat production in recent decades. This has led to the extreme overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming.

“You know, we want to produce more pounds of pork, more pounds of beef and more pounds of chicken with increasingly smaller resources. The best way they have come up with to continue this efficiency drive is to ban antibiotics,” says Mardesen. “I’ve never liked taking an animal as intelligent as a pig and cramming them into a concrete box for the sake of efficiency.”

A recent one report A report from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows that sales of antibiotics for meat production increased 4 percent between 2021 and 2022, with pigs and cattle accounting for the majority of sales. Sales of antibiotics for animal use peaked in 2015, after which the FDA banned the use of antibiotics for animal growth, leading to a large decline in antibiotic sales the following year. But since 2017, sales of antibiotics for livestock farming have increased steadily every year. increase by 12 percent from 2017 to 2022.

“I’ve never liked taking an animal as intelligent as a pig and cramming them into a concrete box for the sake of efficiency.”

About 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the US are sold for animals, not people. The more an antibiotic is used, the more both animals and humans develop resistance to it, which significantly reduces the effectiveness of the intervention, says Steve Roach, food program director at Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), an organization that advocates for humane agriculture . .

While antibiotics were originally used to treat sick animals, farmers in the 1940s discovered that regular use of antibiotics could help animals grow faster in less time and with fewer resources.

Read more: What does 'antibiotic-free' mean when it comes to nutrition?  The answer is not what you would expect.Read more: What does 'antibiotic-free' mean when it comes to nutrition?  The answer is not what you would expect.

Although the US has banned the use of antibiotics for growth, they are still used for disease prevention and control. If one animal becomes ill, the entire group is often treated because they live so close together.

Nearly a third of medically important antibiotics are no duration limitThis means that a farmer can use these antibiotics in feed as long as he wants to prevent diseases. Roach says this allows farmers to keep animals in poor living conditions, making them more likely to get sick.

Ron Mardesen stopped using routine antibiotics almost 40 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Ron Mardesen)

Antibiotic use is especially common on industrial farms, where certain practices lead to diseases in animals. Cattle are often fed a corn or soy diet instead of grass, which is possible lead to disease. Baby pigs are weaned from their mother’s milk and fed solid food before they are ready, causing diarrhea.

Having animals close together in crowded conditions saves money, but diseases can also spread easily,” says Roach. “You’re giving them a diet that’s causing problems, so you’re basically just giving them antibiotics all the time.”

Lynn Utesch, a rancher in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin—a region often called CAFO alley because of its high concentration of industrial farms—discovered early on that, with the right methods, he doesn’t need antibiotics to raise his cattle. He and his wife Nancy own a 150-acre grass-fed beef farm and use a rotational grazing method. Every two days they move their cows to a new pasture and the animals have enough space from each other. In his 30 years working on the farm, Utesch has never had to use antibiotics on his livestock, even as treatment.

“If you let the animal eat its natural food, if you let it live as nature intended, in the open air and where it cannot be kept tightly between other cows, then you do not need antibiotics. because those animals are completely healthy,” says Utesch.

Lynn and Nancy Utesch. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Utesch)

When the Utesches began farming, their customers expressed a preference for antibiotic-free grass-fed beef. That was difficult to find elsewhere at the time. Nowadays this is what many consumers are looking for. A 2021 poll found that “antibiotic-free” labels are important to two-thirds of Americans when purchasing meat.

Despite this priority, labeling is far from simple. From “antibiotic-free” to “no antibiotics used routinely” to “antibiotics may be used,” there are many ambiguities in labeling and little room for nuance, Roach says. Antibiotics are designed to treat sick animals, but their overuse and lack of transparency have led to an “all-or-nothing mentality” and defeated their original intent, he says.

FACT supports the use of antibiotics to treat animals, but only if this is approached with transparency and communication between the farmer and the certifier. The Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University is developing a “certified responsible antibiotic use” label, which allows antibiotics for treatment but not for prevention.

“If you use antibiotics for the treatment, you must report this to the certifier and let him or her know. And so we actually prefer that label, but it’s harder to convey that to the consumer,” Roach says.

More information: Food labels can be difficult to understand and interpret.  That's why we've created a glossary of some common labels you'll see at the grocery store.More information: Food labels can be difficult to understand and interpret.  That's why we've created a glossary of some common labels you'll see at the grocery store.

Unlike Utesch, Mardesen of A-Frame Acres does use antibiotics to treat a pig if it gets sick, but he has a strict documentation process. He must clearly identify the animal, what type of antibiotic was administered, the result of the treatment and where the animal was marketed. He can’t sell that pork to Niman Ranch, which has a strict “no antibiotics ever” policy.

“If I get an animal that gets sick, because I don’t always routinely throw antibiotics at these animals, the antibiotics that are available work a lot better on the farm when I have to treat an animal,” he says. Mardesen.

Limiting antibiotic use will likely require stricter regulations from the FDA and more transparency in labeling. The USDA is considering introducing higher standards to label meat as antibiotic-free. But both Mardesen and Utesch say it starts with changing practices that benefit the animals so that antibiotics are not needed for prevention or control. If there weren’t such a focus on yield and production in the food system, fewer animals would be crammed into tight spaces and given poor nutrition, Utesch says.

According to Utesch, as a consumer it is best to educate yourself and learn where your food comes from. Look for organic and grass-fed meat, understand the different labels and above all, build a relationship with your local farmer.

“Find a farmer and not just pick up the product that the farmer has, but have a relationship where you say, ‘What does rotational grazing mean? Or access to the outside? What does that mean to you?’ Have a conversation about how an animal is actually raised and treated,” says Nancy Utesch.