Few issues affecting production agriculture are as overtly controversial as the intersection of animal health—meaning, the use (or misuse) of antibiotics—and food safety—meaning, the incidence of foodborne illness.
While every constituency involved insists that both animal health and food safety are of paramount importance, the use of pharmaceuticals to promote the former and support the latter is considered controversial by some.
In the interests of resolving that dilemma, a new report from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology titled “The Direct Relationship between Animal Health and Food Safety Outcomes” makes the case that, far from being a negative, judicious use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics may positively affect the health of both animals and humans.
The reason? A sort of “trickle-down effect” on animal health factors that impact meat and poultry quality and safety. Here’s how the C.A.S.T. commentary phrased it:
“In addition to overtly ill animals, there is a growing body of evidence showing that chronically, previously, and not visibly ill animals are more likely to be contaminated with foodborne pathogens after processing in the abattoir (slaughterhouse). These animals, however, may go unnoticed during ante-mortem (live animal) inspection, and thus questions arise concerning the potential impacts of these animals entering the food supply on public health risk from foodborne pathogens.”
Wordy, but pretty clear in t its implications: Animal herds where low-level antibiotics are used tend to be healthier—at least in the ways that otherwise might increase the risk of food-borne contamination—than livestock raised without what industry likes to call “health maintenance products.”
It makes sense. With postmortem examinations, inspectors can observe signs of disease or contamination that are clearly correlated with public health problems, as well as identify zoonotic conditions known to infect people. They can order the contamination removed, the carcass held for veterinary examination or simply condemn the carcass.
Although they can squawk about its intensity and application, even the industry’s fiercest critics can’t complain about the overt objectives of visual meat and poultry inspection: Identify the signs of animal disease and make sure those carcasses don’t enter the food chain unless significant mitigation is possible.
The subclinical conundrum