By: Dr. Leah Dorman
Some people point to the growing size of modern farms as the reason antibiotics are needed. But it doesn’t take a large number of animals to create disease risk, and many steps are taken to foster good animal health. As I’ve interacted with consumers, I’ve learned that many people have no idea of the array of tools and techniques used by farmers, so here goes.
Let’s start by recognizing that risk exists on farms of all sizes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced it is investigating eight separate multistate outbreaks of human salmonella infections linked to backyard flocks of chickens. The development prompted a public health official in North Carolina to say, “Poultry owners must remember that birds inherently have a degree of risk, and even though they feel like members of the family, birds should be kept out of human living areas.” This is just one example of risk in settings with a small number of animals. Without question, there are also risks on large farms, so it’s important to understand the safeguards in place.
There’s no silver bullet for keeping animals healthy. The responsible use of antibiotics is just one tool used on farms. Good stewardship also involves proper nutrition, good ventilation, biosecurity, appropriate housing and other measures designed to protect animal health and ensure food produced from animals is safe. Although vaccines are not available for every disease, when they are, they help protect an animal’s health, too.
Farmers recognize that a high-quality diet is important to ensuring healthy animals. Just as many of us regularly consume multivitamins, feed mills formulate special diets for animals. The feed consists of grains, protein and numerous vitamins and minerals. A balanced diet and access to fresh water are essential for animals raised for food.
Another important part of animal well-being is called “biosecurity.” It consists of precautions taken to:
- Prevent disease from being brought onto a farm from an outside source.
- Reduce the spread of disease within a farm.
- Prevent disease from leaving the farm so it doesn’t spread to other areas.
Biosecurity measures include farmers restricting access to areas where animals are housed to prevent the entrance of disease-causing bacteria and viruses that might be on shoes or tires, and people who work on the farms showering and putting on clean clothing before entering areas where animals are housed.
Despite these efforts, illness still occurs from time to time. Similar to a school environment, when one child gets sick, the infection often spreads to others. When an animal is ill with a bacterial infection, treating it with antibiotics is the right thing to do.
The ultimate goal is to provide safe, wholesome food for families. Food safety begins with all the safeguards on the farm, continues at the processing plant with application of hygienic standards and pathogen reduction technologies, and extends to the proper handling and cooking of food in both the market and at home. All of these steps work in tandem as layers of protection to keep animals healthy and decrease the risk of foodborne illness.