Animal antibiotics

Suppose that a despotic political regime is keeping its citizens in cramped and unhygenic labour camps. The survival and and economic productivity of the incarcerated individuals is sustained only through the widespread administration of antibiotics which helps to prevent epidemics. It is difficult for international organisations to do anything about these work camps, but one thing they could do is cut off the supply of antibiotics. This would risk the lives of thousands of inmates in the short term, but can also be expected to put an end to the work-camp system in the longer term, since it would render the camps uneconomic.

Should the international organisations cut-off the supply of antibiotics? It is doubtful whether they should.

But now suppose we replace the work-camps with chicken houses and sow stalls, and the citzens with farm animals. Many farm animals held under cramped and unhygenic conditions are kept alive, and economically productive, only through the widespread administration of antibiotics. Restricting access to these antibiotics would force the agricultural industry to reform these practices. In this case it seems more plausible that antibiotic use should be restricted. At least, this is what Robert S. Lawrence writes in The Atlantic.

Lawrence is writing in response to a recent move by the FDA to tighten up the use of antibiotics in farm animals. There are three broad reasons for giving farm animals antibiotics:

1. to treat infectious diseases

2. to prevent infectious disease

3. to promote rapid growth

The FDA recently introduced a ‘voluntary restriction’ on the last of these, which has been regarded as the most unacceptable form of agricultural antibiotic use. The motivation for the restriction was a concern about bacterial resistance to antibiotics. This is a growing problem, and may be largely attributable to antibiotic use in animals. In the US, 70% of all antibiotic use occurs in farm animals. Moreover, whereas antibitic regimens used in humans tend to be short and high dose, those used in animals are often low-dose and long-term, making them mor conducive to the development of resistance.

The FDA continues to endorse therapeutic and preventative use of antibiotics, however, and it has come under fire from Lawrence and others for this. Some argue that the FDA restrictions should have been extended to preventative uses as well.

Lawrence argues that there are two main reasons to worry about preventative uses.

First, like growth-promoting regimens, preventative regimens are typically long and low-dose. Thus, they too pose a serious threat of antibiotic resistance.

Second, preventative regimens have largely been used to allow animals to be kept int cramped and unhygenic conditions that increase the exposure of animals to bacteria, and prevent behaviours that normal aid defences against infection. Intensively farmed egg-producing chickens often have as little as 430 square centremetes of ground space each (about 2/3rds of the areas of your computer screen if you’re reading this on a standard 15” laptop) while meat-producing chickens may be kept in overcrowded hen houses on their own manure for their entire 5-6 week lives, often resulting in ammonia burns to their feet. These conditions are clearly bad for animal welfare as well as infection risk, and by endorsing preventative antibiotic use, the FDA is helping to facilitate their continuation. According to Lawrence, the FDA should tighten up on preventative uses of antibiotics as a way of inducing farmers to adopt more animal-friendly practices.

Is there any persuasive response to this last concern?

One argument in defence of the FDA would maintain that it is simply not the FDA’s legally-circumscribed job to look out for animal welfare. Another argument is of a pragmatic kind. Perhaps it would be impossible, or very costly, for the FDA to enforce a ban or ‘voluntary restriction’ on preventative antibiotic use. Lawrence cites evidence that even strict prohibitions are often flaunted by the agricultural industry: the poultry industry allegedly continues to use fluoroquinolone antibiotics despte a ban. Given this, there might seem little hope that a very broad restriction or ban would be respected.

These arguments might perhaps get the FDA off the hook, but they won’t help the US Government as a whole. Animal welfare clearly does lie within the jurisdiction of the US Government. And the US Government probably could enforce a ban on preventative antibiotic use. Is there any good argument for the US Government’s endorsement of preventative antibiotic use.

One argument would appeal to the work-camp example with which I started this post. Regarding that example, I suspect many would say that the antibiotic supply to the inmates should not be stopped. To interupt the supply of drugs would be to use current inmates as a means to improving the lot of others in the future, and that would be unacceptable. Perhaps it would be unacceptable to interupt the supply of antibiotics to farm animals for the same reasons.

It’s very doubtful, however, whether concerns about the inmates in the work-camp case can be carried over to the case of industrial farming in this way. Sacrificing some people to benefit others is arguably morally unacceptable because people have rights, and sacrificing them violates those rights. But it is doubtful whether animals have rights against being used as a means to benefit others. Moreover, if they do, government institutions should probably ban industrial farming altogether, since the very practice of farming animals uses them as a means. Unlike in the work-camp case, where I assumed that the international organisations could not put an end to the camps directly, the US government (though not the FDA alone) perhaps could put an end to industrial farming practices, and if animals have rights against being used as means, that is presumably what they should do.

One final way of defending the US Government’s endorsement of preventative antibiotic use would be to defend the industrial farming practices that it permits. Some might maintain that the costs of these practices for animals are outweighed by the good that they produce for people. Perhaps if we were to move away from these practices, the costs of producing meat would go up leading to reductions in food supply and/or price rises. This might indirectly contribute to malnutrition among the world’s poorest people.

However, there is some empirical evidence suggesting that this would not happen. In 2000, Denmark introduced strict laws on antiobiotic use in farm animals, and after a short term rise in animal illness and death, the pig farming industry improved the nutrition and housing of pigs. This does not appear to have substantially reduced the supply of pork and indeed Denmark remains the worlds leading pork exporter. Microbe Magazine reports that

Between 1992 and 2008, Danish farmers increased swine production by 47%,maintaining their standing as being among the largest exporters of pork in the world while exporting 90% of pork they produce. During this period, antimicrobial use in swine was reduced by 51%, from 100.4 to 48.9 mg/kg meat.

It is not obvious that the Danish experience could be replicated elsewhere, but it should be reassuring to those concerned about reduction meat supply.

More importantly, though, if the concern is with preserving food supply to the world’s poorest people, it would be best to move away from producing meat altogether and towards more resource-efficient forms of agriculture. It is difficult to defend industrial meat production practices on the grounds that they provide food more efficiently than less intensive farming practices when more efficient means of food supply that do not involve animals at all are available.




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2 Responses to Animal antibiotics

  • Ben says:


    Why is it a violation of rights to “use” the suffering of the current generation to prohibit suffering to the future, but not the converse? (i.e. if we don’t ban antibiotics, then we’re increasing the suffering of future generations to decrease the pain of the current one.)

  • Tom Douglas says:

    Hi Ben,
    I think there are few different ways in which one could draw a moral distinction between the two cases, though I’m not sure any are persuasive. For example, one suggestion might be that if one intervened to stop the antibiotics one would be *causing* present suffering in order to prevent future suffering, whereas one if one allowed the antibiotic supply to continue, one would only be *allowing* future suffering in order to prevent future suffering. Another suggestion would be that if one stopped the antibiotics one of the bad effects of this (the non-treatment of incarcerated individuals) would be a causal intermediary in the production of the good effect (the prevention of future suffering), whereas if one did not stop the antibiotic supply, the resulting bad effect (future suffering) would not be a causal intermediary in the production of the good effect (prevent of current suffering).
    Of course you might well dispute the moral significance of these distinctions….


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