As a member of the U. S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council, I had the opportunity to attend an educational event recently that included a tour of Deppe Farms (a hog operation in Washington, Missouri). I also had the pleasure of meeting other members of the Digital Voices Council including Dr. Leah Dorman who is a veterinarian, a mom and a farmer.
During the farm tour many questions arose about antibiotics. Leah was able to answer every question and provide in-depth explanations from a veterinarian’s perspective. I was impressed with her ability to address such a complex topic so I wanted to do a follow up interview with her and share it with others.
MELISSA: Leah, thank you for all the work you do communicating about farming practices, food and veterinary medicine. Can you share why it’s so important for you to do this?
LEAH: Consumers are interested now more than ever before in how their food is grown and raised. And why not? Food is necessary, personal and some would even say it’s intimate. Consumers are simply seeking peace of mind and assurance that what they are feeding their families is healthy. I welcome their questions and am committed to providing honest answers. I have my work cut out for me because there is a lot of misinformation swirling.
MELISSA: Leah, please tell us about your work as a veterinarian.
LEAH: As Director of Food Integrity and Consumer Engagement for Phibro Animal Health, my role is to provide balanced information about important food and animal agricultural issues including the responsible use of antibiotics to the entire food chain – farmers, companies, packers, retailers, food service and consumers.
I’m a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, U.S. Animal Health Association and the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA). In the past, I worked on behalf of farmers for the Ohio Farm Bureau. As the Assistant State Veterinarian for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, I was commissioned by the Food & Drug Administration to conduct on-farm investigations. As a Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostician, I received specialized training in biosecurity and recognition of disease that are not established in the U.S.
MELISSA: Do you have a “food philosophy” and if so, what is it?
LEAH: I believe in informed food choice. Consumers in the U.S. have an amazing array of options in the meat, milk and eggs they purchase. Choosing to consume animal protein from antibiotic-free systems is among those options. But many consumers are just as confident with conventionally raised food.
MELISSA: Can you elaborate on that?
LEAH: Consumer research shows that the top overall concern is keeping healthy food affordable, ranking higher than the economy or health care. When asked about “must have” information on their food labels, antibiotic use ranked low.
Allowing a small group of individuals to decide what all of us can or cannot eat limits food choice and smacks of food elitism. Food elitists can be defined as those who value “responsibly produced” foods the typical American family cannot find or afford.
MELISSA: There seems to be so much confusion about antibiotics. What is the most important thing you want people to know?
LEAH: As a mom of three girls, it is vitally important to me to ensure that antibiotics are effective when I need them most: when one of my kids is sick. In order to minimize agriculture’s contribution to antibiotic resistance, it is important that we continue to use antibiotics responsibly on the farm.
As a veterinarian, I also recognize the importance of antibiotics to the welfare of animals. I took an oath to protect animal health, prevent and relieve animal suffering and promote public health, which I take very seriously. Antibiotics are one of the most important tools that veterinarians and farmers use to protect both human health and animal health. Animal suffering could be an unintended consequence if antibiotics are disallowed in food animals. If retailers refuse to accept animals that have been responsibly treated with antibiotics, farmers could be forced to choose between allowing animal suffering and having no destination for their animals. Using as little antibiotics as possible, but as much as necessary to prevent, control or treat disease, is the ethical thing to do.
MELISSA: What is the bottom line takeaway for people?
LEAH: Animal antibiotics have been used by farmers for decades to make food safer, prevent animal suffering, and lessen the burden on our planet. Responsible use of antibiotics benefits all of us by keeping animals, food and the environment healthy. When left untreated, sick animals grow more slowly, requiring more food and water. Thus, more grain must be grown for feed, which requires more fertilizer, water and acres of land. So, sick animals have a larger environmental impact, while healthy animals use fewer natural resources.
The food you feed your family is safe, even when antibiotics are needed on the farm. There are multiple safeguards in place to ensure food safety, including mandatory antibiotic withdrawal periods in animals and routine testing of meat by U.S. Department of Agriculture and food companies.
MELISSA: September was National Chicken Month – can you share anything specific with us about poultry?
LEAH: Last fall, I had the opportunity to host a tour for recipe bloggers. Ten recipe bloggers toured a chicken hatchery (where eggs are hatched into baby chicks) and broiler (chickens used for meat) farm. It was so much fun to open the barn doors and answer questions about their food openly and honestly. They came away with a new understanding about what we do in animal agriculture. It was also fun to undo some myths they had about chicken production. I hope to do another tour similar to this with others in the retail side (restaurant, grocery store, etc.) next year.
MELISSA: What are some of the myths you cleared up?
LEAH: First of all, the participants were amazed at the level of care that the birds get – from eggs to the full grown chicken. They began to understand how antibiotics and vaccines are just two parts of keeping chickens healthy – there’s also biosecurity, nutrition, appropriate housing, ventilation and more. Some thought they would end up a vegetarian after taking the tour, but they confirmed that seeing the process made them appreciate chicken meat that much more.
MELISSA: Thanks for clearing up these myths! Where can people find more information about antibiotics and animal health?
LEAH: Two websites, released earlier this year, are designed to deliver information in straightforward, honest terms. AnimalAntibiotics.org is a resource for consumers and ExploreAnimalHealth.org is designed for those of us directly involved in animal care as we engage in conversations with food system stakeholders and consumers. The goal of both sites is to distill the sea of information and scientific studies into a few important points about how and why animal antibiotics are used, including the impact on human health, food safety and the environment. The sites also feature resource libraries with shareable content.
Available on the site for you to view, download and share, is a video series about animal antibiotics. This three-part series explains how and why we use antibiotics on the farm, the difference between residue and resistance, food safety protections, and the changes underway in how we use animal antibiotics to ensure we are doing our part to address antibiotic resistance.
I welcome your questions, comments and suggestions regarding these resources or any animal health topics. You may contact me at AskDrDorman@pahc.com or Connect with me at Ask Dr. Dorman on Facebook and @AskDrDorman on Twitter.
Melissa Joy Dobbins is part of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council. This post is part of my ongoing sponsored partnership with U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. All opinions expressed are my own. Funded by one or more checkoff programs.