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The Link Between Antibiotics In Livestock And Superbugs In Humans

The CDC has been sounding the alarm about the link between antibiotics in meat and antibiotic resistance in humans, but a new report finds that antibiotic-free options are still relatively scarce. Reno Public Radio’s Amy Westervelt talked to one Nevada rancher in Fallon who's made the switch.

"See how there's so much less fiber in this year's cow pie?"

Norris Albaugh is a fifth generation rancher, but he does things a little differently than his father and grandfather. About 13 years ago, he began closely monitoring his herd's health using all sorts of indicators -- like the cow pies in his field. That's poop for you city folks. Before then, the Albaugh ranch operated like most others.

"In 1998, it cost us $25 per cow per year in animal health products - de-wormers, fly control, we were using shots to prevent pneumonia, a 4-way combo of IBR, BVD, PI3, BRSFee, we were using pink eye shots, leptrovibriotric for abortion diseases in the cows, 8-way clostridiol for the spores."

Using what Albaugh refers to as "modern medical props" wasn't financially sustainable, and didn't seem to be good for the animals either, so he started experimenting … first with rotating their herds on grass.

"Our cows, they roam all over, as Norris was saying earlier you saw some down here by the water trough, and they go up near the shade of the trees, and they just walk around and meander."

That’s Suzy Albaugh, Norris’ wife, who’s every bit as passionate about the family business as her husband.

In the years since they began transforming the ranch, the Albaughs have successfully eliminated the need for most shots and other animal health products. On the rare occasion when they do need to treat an animal with antibiotics, they cull it from the herd to sell at auction.

"Dead animals pay no bills. Personally, I won't eat meat from a cow that's had antibiotics, if I know it. So with cows that I've ear-notched, I separate them out to sell."

That's an important distinction according to a new reportthat highlights the link between antibiotics in meat and antibiotic resistance in humans. Produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, and Consumers Union, the report ranks various chain restaurants according to their policies on antibiotics. Chipotle and Panera Bread receive high marks for purchasing antibiotic-free products. But several other chains -- including Starbucks, Subway, and Olive Garden -- score a solid F for failing to have any policy at all. Though restaurants are lagging behind, many meat producers are stepping up.

"We need to make sure that human-use antibiotics are reduced on farm, and that's what Tyson is moving toward today in our broiler chickens. But we're gonna work with our beef, pork, and turkey supply chain to get there as well."

That's Christine Daugherty, director of sustainability for Tyson Foods, who has spent the last year speaking about that company's commitment to reducing the use of antibiotics.But according to NRDC medical advisor David Wallinga, making a distinction between "human" and "animal" antibiotics is a red herring, because bacteria draw no such boundaries.

"They're all the same thing and they travel back and forth."

Moreover, in the U.S., 70 percent of human-use antibiotics are being used on livestock anyway. “It doesn’t matter where you’re using the antibiotics – in the hospital, or in your home, or on the farm – if you’re exposing bacteria in that location to those drugs they’re gonna develop resistance," Wallinga says.

The CDC is currently logging two million cases of antibiotic-resistant infection each year in the U.S., resulting in 23,000 deaths. Misuse of antibiotics in human medicine is a significant part of the problem, but experts agree that the overuse of antibiotics in food also contributes.

According to Albaugh, if you're practicing good animal husbandry, antibiotics just aren't necessary.

"The farmer or rancher just needs to make sure he's doing his best out in the field to give the animal the necessary nutrition to perform to their capabilities. Grain and a lot of the new modern props in the last 80-100 years, is not natural. You look in the Bible and grain was for people, it was not for their animals. We have gotten away from natural in pursuit of production."

Sitting at their tidy kitchen table, the Albaughs also frame their management strategy in terms of what they'll be leaving behind for their children Helen, Wilhelmina and Waldo.

"All three kids have said they want to come back and work the farm eventually. So you have to make it financially sustainable and you have to pass on the knowledge. If you're just going to the medicine cabinet or the feed store and grabbing what's on the shelf, it might be available a week or a month from now, it might not. Who knows?"

The Albaughs plan to keep expanding their production and hope to eventually meet rising demand for their products in Reno and Las Vegas. And they’re not alone. As consumer awareness around the issue grows, more Reno-Tahoe ranchers are slowly moving away from antibiotics.

Antibiotic-free meat options from Albaugh Ranch and others are available at Great Basin Co-op in Reno.

Amy Westervelt is a former contributor at KUNR Public Radio.
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