Behind the Antibiotic Buzz

January 16, 2017

antibiotic bottle

Recently, a group of dietetic interns from Northern Illinois University were given the opportunity to tour Steve Ward's pig farm and Alan Adams' cattle farm to see the first step in the food production process for themselves. They learned about the science behind livestock farming and asked their own questions about how a farmer's choices affect food safety. Here is what they learned:

In the whirlwind that is the food industry, it is challenging to understand what information regarding our food supply is factual and should affect our practices. As dietetic interns at Northern Illinois University, we had the opportunity to visit Old Elms Farm, which is owned and operated by the Ward family. A large part of this family business is the pig farm, where thousands of pigs are raised and sold each year. As we toured the pig farm with Steve Ward, the main farm operator, we were able to get a glimpse into the standard practices involved in pig farming. We were also able to sit down with the veterinarian assigned to the farm, Dr. Wesley Lyons. One topic that Steve covered was antibiotics, a current buzzword among the public with regards to antibiotic use in animal farming. As future registered dietitian nutritionists, we felt this was an important topic on which we, and the public, should be educated.

What, you may ask, are the key points to know related to antibiotics when choosing an animal based protein source such as bacon or pork chops? Read on to find out!
For Swine (aka pigs!):

When are antibiotics needed and how much?

Antibiotics are used when a pig has come down with cold/flu type symptoms. The pigs at Old Elms Farm are checked twice daily for overall health. Steve shared that sick pigs act a lot like sick people- laying by themselves coughing and sneezing while the others are up and moving. While the farmers prevent infection by keeping them dry, controlling temperature, and shortening their tails, it is inevitable for some pigs to get sick, just like people. If an animal appears sick, it is separated from the group and treated with medicine as necessary. Usually the pigs need a couple of doses at 1 milliliter per 100 pounds. During this time of treatment, the pigs have no contact with the others, ensuring disease does not spread and that the pigs have the appropriate amount of time to get the antibiotics out of their systems.

So are there antibiotics in my food?

No, as a pig treated with medicine cannot be marketed until the medicine has completely cleared its system. This takes 14 days and the U.S. FDA strictly regulates the withdrawal time of antibiotics with a zero tolerance policy. If a pig is receiving antibiotics when it is close to market (time for sale), the pig will not be sent until the antibiotics have cleared the pig’s system. Once the pig completes its antibiotics and is no longer showing symptoms it may return to its pen and continue to grow until it is time for the market.

What if the pig still makes it to market?

Even though there are standards of practice, some concern may exist among consumers over whether some antibiotic induced pigs slip through and are sent to market. It is important to know that there is a specific tracking process to identify the pigs that have received the antibiotics. The ill pigs are marked and information is kept on record such as what antibiotic was provided, how much, and how often it was provided. Random testing of the animals for antibiotic remnants has revealed that only .007% of pigs are sold to market with antibiotics. If antibiotics are found, the industry then knows which farm the animals came from and that farm is then responsible for the incident.

What about chickens or cows?

A chicken’s lifespan is about one third of the lifespan of a pig. From a practical standpoint, this may create an easier opportunity for a chicken to have a completely antibiotic free life compared to swine. In regards to cattle (cows), procedures are similar to that of swine.


Northern Illinois University Dietetic Interns

Authored by Erika Oltmanns, Mike Quaintance and Emily Borger.

In the fall of 2016, a group of Dietetic Interns from NIU toured a local beef cattle farm in Sandwich, IL and a pig farm in Sycamore, IL to learn more about how food is produced and what that means for food safety. After the tours, they shared their thoughts by blogging about what they experienced on these farms.

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