Are there antibiotics in meat? Farmer Doc and I raise cattle, and we are both veterinarians. With more and more food labels coming out (like ones that say “no antibiotics” or “raised without antibiotics”) we get asked this question a lot.
The very short answer to this question is no, there are no antibiotics in meat. But let’s dig into this a little more.
How Beef Cattle Farmers Use Antibiotics
There are three main reasons that beef cattle farmers use antibiotics.
- To treat cattle when they get sick.
- In very specific situations, to try to keep cattle from getting sick.
- To help control the protozoa in a cow’s rumen so she can use nutrients better.
Let’s talk about that second reason – trying to keep cattle from getting sick.
Some farmers who raise beef cattle in a feedlot will give antibiotics to new animals coming into their herd. New cattle coming into an established herd are under quite a bit of stress. They have just traveled from their original farm (this can be hundreds of miles away, or just across the state). They are meeting a bunch of new cattle, and they will need to establish their place in the pecking order in this new herd. They will probably be at the bottom of the pecking order for a little while, which means they may be last to get to the food or water, or not get the best spot in the shade for a few days.
The new cattle are most likely going to be exposed to a few diseases they haven’t been exposed to before, which gives them a high risk of getting sick. This is very similar to when your kids go to day care for the first time, or when they go back to school in the fall. Your kids pick up every little cough and cold in the school, and spread it to your whole family!
Because these new cattle are under stress, they have a higher likelihood of getting sick than they normally would. Many times, a single dose of a long-acting antibiotic can help these new cattle get through the initial “rough period” of making new friends without getting sick.
If cattle stay healthy during this transition period, they will continue to eat and drink better, they will adapt to their new herd better, and they will continue to grow. Most importantly, they will continue to feel good the whole time! If cattle get sick during this time, they will often go off feed and water (stop eating and drinking), feel bad, and need to be separated from the herd for more intensive treatments.
Because cattle are ruminants, antibiotics that are given in food or water don’t work. The microbes that live in their rumens (and do all the hard work of digesting the plants they eat) break down the antibiotics. When cattle need antibiotics, they need to get shots. Beef cattle aren’t crazy about being handled on a regular basis, and this can add even more stress. The more farmers can do to prevent cattle from getting sick in the first place, the better off the animals are.
I’m sure you have questions about the third reason that beef cattle farmers use antibiotics – to help a cow use the nutrients from her food better. And I promise, I’ll write another article about that one.
Farmers need to keep very close records of which animal gets an antibiotic, what antibiotics they give, and how much they give. Every antibiotic has a withdrawal period. The withdrawal period is the amount of time that has to pass after a farmer gives an antibiotic, before that animal can be sold for food. Many antibiotics have a different withdrawal period for milk and for meat.
Before the withdrawal period is over, there may still be detectable levels of antibiotics in an animal’s milk or meat. It takes time for the antibiotics to be broken down and eliminated from the body. This time is different for every antibiotic. After the withdrawal period is over, there is no detectable level of antibiotic in the milk or meat. Farmers are fined heavily if they disregard these requirements, and some companies may stop purchasing from them.
Farmers who raise other kinds of animals follow the same rules as farmers who raise beef cattle. Here are some other articles I’ve written about how beef cattle farmers, pig farmers, and turkey farmers use antibiotics.
All of this is the long way to say…
There are no antibiotics in your meat.
No matter how the animal was raised – on a conventional farm or on an organic farm – there are no antibiotics in your meat.
What other questions do you have about farming? Some of my friends and I are answering questions about farming every month. Leave your question here in the comments, and I’ll answer it in an upcoming post!