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Why a Ban on Unnecessary Antibiotics on Farms Wouldn't Really Raise Meat Prices

A look at some of the numbers behind a ban that consumer groups have long lobbied for.
(Photo: Jumnian Pelt/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Jumnian Pelt/Shutterstock)

Do you look for antibiotic-free pork chops or milk when you're at the grocery store? If so, you're not alone in your concern about the effects those medicines have on our food and environment. Over the past decade, consumer and science groups have advocated for laws to reduce the amount of antibiotics that farmers can feed to their animals.

In particular, advocates have sought bans on the use of antibiotics to fatten livestock. That's right—it's a fact of biology that when healthy farm animals eat low doses of antibiotics, they often grow faster and gain more weight, without needing to actually eat more food. It's more bang for the buck, so to speak. However, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Public Health Association, and other agencies worry that "production-purpose" antibiotics on farms have contributed to the rise of "superbug" illnesses, which affect humans and aren't curable with modern antibiotics. These antibiotic opponents argue that farmers should only use antibiotics on sick animals. That way, the medicines will continue to work for a longer period of time, for both animals and people.

Forty percent of the adult hogs sold in the U.S. came from farms that use antibiotics for fattening.

Such a ban would represent a big change in the way agricultural business is done in the United States. Just how big? A new report by the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service offers a quantitative answer, with numbers on how many chickens, cattle, and pigs in the U.S. are fed antibiotics to speed their growth.

Even in the event of a complete ban on production-purpose antibiotics, wholesale meat prices would only rise by one percent, according to the report. That's because the medicines don't make animals gain as much weight as previously thought, and because enough farms already eschew production-purpose antibiotics. Overall, the report's results suggest there's not a big economic cost to shifting away from feeding food animals antibiotics to fatten them.

Let's start with the numbers on how much American meat comes from animals that are fed antibiotics. Note that the Economic Research Service data below comes from surveys conducted in 2009 and 2010. Current figures may be lower, as American companies agreed in 2014 to stop making feed laced with certain classes of antibiotics.

  • Pork: In 2009, 40 percent of the adult hogs sold in the U.S. came from farms that use antibiotics for fattening. Meanwhile, one in five farms said they didn't know, or didn't report, their antibiotic use.
  • Chicken: In 2011, 48 percent of broiler chickens were raised without antibiotics for growth. Nearly one in three chicken farms didn't know or didn't report their antibiotic use.
  • Beef: In 2011, three-quarters of ranches raising 1,000 cattle or more fed their animals antibiotics in their food or water—a common practice among farmers hoping their antibiotics will fatten.

Meanwhile, recent studies have found antibiotics only make farm animals one to three percent heavier, an effect that's not even statistically significant, the Economic Research Service reports. Research dating from the 1950s through the '80s often showed larger effects, perhaps because farm practices at that time made animals more likely to suffer from infections, which the antibiotics would then treat. Nowadays, dropping production-purpose antibiotics would have only a small effect on farms' productivity.

The FDA is already at work on what amounts to a partial ban on all production-purpose antibiotics. There was the agreement the agency struck with companies in 2014, and, starting in December 2016, farmers and ranchers will have to get a prescription from a veterinarian to feed their animals certain antibiotics. Previously, farmers had been able to buy antibiotics over the counter at feed stores.

Will the law change really cut the amount of antibiotics in American meat and milk? When the FDA first announced its plan, critics worried that vets might just write a lot of unnecessary prescriptions. Even if the ban does work, however, grocery shoppers probably won't notice. Your conventional pork chops and skim milk will cost about the same.