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What I know about “pumping antibiotics into your future steak or hamburger”


“104.7!”

image courtesy of http://www.agandfoodlaw.com

“Bio 11!”

Someone moves to fill the syringe with 50 mL’s of dark, syrupy liquid and attaches a 3/4″ needle. Five small injection sites later, a steer leaves the chute with a clang.

*(normal temp is 101.5, so 104.7 as referenced above is considered very sick)

Every day, I inject numbers of sick, fevered* cattle with antibiotics. Cattle that will soon be entering the supermarket as your favorite burger or steak or brisket. By now, every American is well versed in the dangers of overusing antibiotics both in animals and people. Giving your toddler antibiotics for every round of sniffles will make a medicine-resistant germs that will infect your loved one later, and leave them prone to more allergies. Antibiotic residues entering your body through food has been linked to having the same effect (although these studies are still largely inconclusive).

So let’s consider this: Are we creating super bugs that can run rampant through our population, making us miserable and sending medical experts reeling for new drugs to stop the ever-stronger pathogens??

First, we need to understand that there are very similar principles involved with human and animal antibiotic use. Just because we’ve learned antibiotics are NOT the answer to everything, especially viruses which can’t be cured with them anyway, doesn’t mean there is not a place for them. There are times when antibiotics are incredibly useful. Ever had strep throat? Antibiotics are a life-saver! Without taking antibiotics, strep throat poses the risk of becoming bad enough to hospitalize you for kidney damage or heart valve inflammation. Before antibiotics, people died from simple sickness. The same is true in cattle. It is not the answer for everything, but it can ultimately prevent a death by treating an illness before it overtakes the animal’s body or spreads to the entire herd to create an epidemic. And a dose of antibiotics can save significant levels of animal suffering, which I think most human beings would agree is our invaluable responsibility for the animals in our care.

Second, not only do veterinarians monitor the use of antibiotics in food animals, but the FDA is incredibly involved. They do continuous studies to ensure that there are no residual drugs, hormones, or pesticides of any kind entering your body through a steak, hamburger (or veggie!). They work directly with the drug companies to test the meat treated with antibiotics. Over the years, injections have been moved onto the neck (instead of the rear) to help both with bruising the animal and the damage to the meat. These FDA restrictions have also lead to withdrawl times, which are well-known and strictly enforced by every working member on the feedyard. A withdrawl time is set by the FDA and printed on the drug label for easy access. Many steps are taken to ensure no antibiotics are in the cows system at all by the time they are slaughtered:

Cattle are restrained in a chute for cattle/person safety, cattle comfort, and injection accuracy. Photo courtesy of http://www.morandindustries.com

  •  Animals are only injected in the neck instead of the rear of the animal. This means that in fact, the more popular cuts of beef (round, steaks, etc) are not ever directly injected with antibiotics. Antibiotics are also injected subcutaneously, or just under the skin, instead of directly into the muscles that you eat.
  • Several injection sites are used in order to prevent a high concentration of antibiotics in one region. If the medication is not properly spread out, it can sort of ball up under the skin and does not circulate properly (therefore not being as effective in treating the sickness)

These are the acceptable injection sites as set out by Beef Quality Assurance

  • The withdrawal time (in the case of Bio, ~30 days), means that any animal given Bio absolutely under NO circumstances can leave the yard for that time period, until it is positively known that the animal does not have any trace of antibiotic travelling through their bodies.
  •  Every animal that is run through the hospital receives a hospital tag. This tag is individual to this animal, and is also entered into a computer database.
  • Any animal that receives an antibiotic gets a notch cut out of the ear tag in a specific area to signify which drug has been given, so you can look at the animal and see that they have been treated during their stay on the feedlot
  • The computer system tracks the date and dosage of every trip through the chute, whether or not it gets antibiotics
  • If an animal has received 3 doses of antibiotics and comes back sick again, it is deemed “Chronic” and will be put down if it becomes too ill/fails to recover. Even feedlots recognize that there is a point to which antibiotics are not doing their job, and continuously treating an animal not only increases risk of it retaining an illness, but also stresses an animal. Unfortunately, if an animal doesn’t get better after our best efforts, the best option is to put the animal out of his misery and continue to protect the people consuming beef daily.
  • When a pen of cattle is shipped (to slaughter), all animals of that pen are checked to be sure they are “clear” –they have met every withdrawl time and therefore are not containing any drug residues.
  • Any animal that is not clear must be moved to an entirely different pen prior to the ship to ensure that no one accidentally adds them to the truck.
  • As the pen ships, it is entered as such in the computer. The computer also checks again for any “Hot” (not met withdrawal times) animals. If after all the human checks, the computer finds that a hot animal is on the truck, the entire truck must be stopped on the highway and turned back to the feedyard, where every animal is unloaded and reloaded only after they have ensured that hot animals have been moved off the loading area into the designated “hot” pen. It is very rare that it ever gets to this point (it hasn’t happened in my 5 months here, and I have only ever heard of 1 instance…and many employees have been around for 10+ years)
Antibiotic rules are constantly modified and checked on. Every person administering antibiotics must know the withdrawal times and responsibly give the proper dosage in the proper areas– not only for animal comfort and well-being, but for ours as well. It’s a very detailed system, with many back-ups and checkpoints. Straying from any label guidelines is strictly prohibited and illegal. And trust me, no feedlot can afford to risk being shut down by simply not following directions on a label. Veterinarians are also constantly checking on our practices. They are tailoring the medication programs to better help the animals and to reduce overall antibiotic levels. They are updating staff on new study results. Our vet visits once a month with graphs and notes on all of our treatment histories and data. He reviews every doctor practice that we carry out, and gives us new goals or criteria to go on for the next month. The FDA checks their studies not just when a new drug first reaches the market, but afterwards as well to ensure that no results change as time progresses. To read more about FDA regulations on drug use in food animals, you can visit their website here.

Healthy Cows are Happy Cows! Photo courtesy of http://www.ericcressey.com

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I’m goin in!


I haven’t been able to keep up my initial momentum in posts. The 14th I got an offer to become an intern at one of the largest feedyards in the world!! A week later, and I have driven across the country, found and moved into an apartment, and life is still moving at a lightning fast pace.

My internship will be a 3 month adventure into the workings of a cattle feedyard. For those who don’t know what this translates to, a feedyard (or feedlot, or CAFO) is the last stop for most mainstream cattle before the slaughterhouse. For 3-6 months, the cattle are kept in large pens and fed a high energy diet. This allows them to gain additional weight and fat (marbling) to add that lovely juicy flavor into your steaks.

One of the biggest reasons I’ve been pursuing a job on a feedyard is because they don’t have a great reputation with the public. In a square mile or so, there can be over 100,000 animals. That doesn’t play into the happy-go-lucky image of Bessie on a big open field, side-ways munching on luscious greens. I’m curious to see how they really work. I can’t believe they are as bad as extremists make them out to be. As I’ve said before, and I know I’ll say it again, the people in the cattle business are fabulous. There is no way they would send the animals they’ve cared for during so many months to a horrible place to spend their remaining time on earth.

The concerns range from environmental to animal welfare to human nutrition and beyond. These feedyards are predominately out west where there is a large area of land, so I’m not sure of all the inner workings yet. My specific job will be working with Herd Health and the hospital area to care for any cattle who arrive or become sick while at the feedyard. I’m really excited to get my hands dirty and start doctoring some (OK, thousands! of) animals!

I’m curious to hear the opinion of anyone reading, concerns, questions, or whatever. My hope through this  work experience is not only to further my own education and knowledge of this significant stage of beef production, but to help provide a window for anyone else who is curious about them. I’d be interested to find out what many of you already know about feedlots, and what you think of them so far. I want to be able to answer your questions, discuss your opinions, and hear your feedback. Feel free to email me, comment on the post, or contact me in any other way. I’ll be sure to find an answer for both of us. Also, if you know a lot about them, share that, too! I’m a little nervous about this move and the new job, and I really don’t know what to expect. Clue me in :). And in the meantime, keep checking in because you’ll probably see me exploring my own concerns or delights that maybe you hadn’t considered.