Subway has announced that it will begin sourcing antibiotic-free meat for their sandwiches. Consumers are concerned about antibiotic use in farming contributing to the increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria. Apparently, Subway is making this switch to satisfy customer demand. This decision has been met with uproar in the agriculture world. Farmers are concerned that marketing Subway’s meat as “antibiotic free” could help to perpetuate the assumption that conventionally farmed meat contains antibiotics. I know that this is not true and I hope that consumers realize this as well: an animal cannot be slaughtered before the drug specific withdrawal time after antibiotic treatment has passed, which is the time it takes for the drug to be excreted from the animal’s system. It seems that Subway is marketing meat from animals that have NEVER been given antibiotics. Unfortunately, this claim is also drawing assumptions and claims from farmers that are, quite simply, false.
The most common assumption is that animals that are fighting bacterial infections on an antibiotic-free (or organic farm, too, for that matter) are left to suffer or are euthanized rather than treating the sick animal with lifesaving antibiotics.
This quote from a large animal vet in Alberta, Cody Creelman (follow him on Instagram @vetpracticevahs for amazing pictures and inspiring stories) is a great example of how this simply is not true:
“I’m a feedlot veterinarian and I have hundreds of thousands of conventionally raised beef cattle that are under my care. I also manage thousands of cattle that are raised in “natural”, “hormone free” or “antibiotic free” programs. When these animals get sick due to a bacterial infection, they are treated the same as my conventional calves. They are given an antibiotic, recorded, and simply “taken out” of the system and sold as a conventional calf at slaughter. These animals do not go untreated, nor are they euthanized (unless deemed medically necessary).”
In my own experience on our organic dairy farm, I also know that this assumption is not accurate. A cow that is sick is treated. Period. On an organic dairy farm (in Canada), cows can be treated with antibiotics twice in the period of one year. If another treatment is needed, the cow’s milk is no longer considered organic. A cow that has been treated with antibiotics even once can never be slaughtered as an organic animal. As farmers, we do whatever we can to keep our cows healthy, but when or if this fails and our animals contract an infection that they are unable to fight, we do not hesitate to do whatever it takes to have that animal return to health, including administering antibiotics, if necessary. If that means that she cannot be sold as an organic slaughter animal or that her milk is no longer organic, so be it. Farming organically does not mean that we care less for our animals than our conventional neighbours. Rather, we care just as much even though we farm under a different banner. We would never allow a cow to suffer by withholding treatment just to maintain an organic product.
Obviously, the claim that antibiotic free or organic animals are left to suffer if they are ill is unfounded, as both my own farming experiences and Dr. Creelman’s extensive veterinary proficiency show. It’s regrettable that this claim has been flooding my social media channels since Subway’s decision was announced. It’s even more regrettable that so many farmers are sharing these claims without verifying their validity. I think it speaks to the spirit of the times: we are farming in an era of distrust and of pitting farming types against one another.
It’s incredibly unfortunate that this culture of pitting farmers and farm types against each other continues to grow. And I’ll be the first to admit that various marketing schemes only fan the flames of these fires. Big corporations looking to buy into the niche markets seem to feel the need to denigrate other types of farming practices in order to promote their own products. And it shouldn’t have to be like this! Truthfully, I don’t know how to fight this, besides asking these companies to rethink their methods of advertising. If we all speak up, politely but firmly, perhaps our voices will be heard. I’m not sure how Subway is planning to market their antibiotic-free meat. I can only hope that they will do so without throwing conventional farms and farmers under the bus. I guess we will see in time.
But what can we, as farmers, do to stop this repeated perpetuation of certain farm types being “bad” from carrying over into our own agricultural community and causing antagonism and rivalry? I believe that to begin to fight this culture of fear, we need to stop feeling the need to compete with one another. There really are more than enough consumers to go around! 😉 If a farmer decides to manufacture their product to fill a niche market, then we should allow them to do that without judging them or their practices and without trying to undermine their decisions and businesses. Additionally, deliberately creating fear about another type of farm practice must also end. And that goes for all “sides” (and I hate that there are “sides”) – conventional, natural, antibiotic free, organic, etc. Instead of creating fear about or questioning the legitimacy of another type of farming, explain the practices you employ and why you use them on your farm, while allowing other types of farmers to tell their own story.
I’ll continue to call for us to work together, to collaborate, and, most importantly, to support each other, and I hope you’ll join me in spreading this message. We’re a tiny fraction of the population and we need to stick together. We’re the minority feeding the majority. Divisiveness and animosity doesn’t help us to do our job but rather undermines our purpose. Our sole purpose should be feeding our consumers while ensuring that we are good stewards of our land and animals, regardless of what practices we employ and what standards we adhere to. And so, moving forward, let us try to be open-minded and accepting of others and their practices. Doing so, we all win, consumers and farmers alike.