By Mike King

Many market drivers in today’s competitive protein world are pushing more livestock and poultry producers to consider no-antibiotics-ever or raised-without-antibiotics (RWA) production programs. While these may give farmers additional marketing leverage and offer food brands a perceived selling advantage, findings of a newly released survey may give the livestock industry pause.

Why Investigate Now?

“It’s well-known that pork producers and others in food animal agriculture are seeing and hearing more about programs such as RWA,” said Dave Pyburn, a veterinarian and vice president of science and technology for the Pork Checkoff. “We felt this area was significant enough to invest some Checkoff funds into a project sponsored by the Animal Agriculture Alliance. The project gives our stakeholders a better picture of the pros and cons of these production methods.”

One of the primary investigators of the project was Jennifer Wishnie, a public health veterinarian on the faculty at California State Polytechnic University.

“To my knowledge, this is the first study of its kind,” Wishnie said. “We looked at veterinarians’ and producers’ experiences and perceptions of not allowing antibiotic use in food animal production. We also studied the impact on animal health and welfare challenges, food safety, consumer demand and production efficiency.”

But what’s really driving RWA programs in the first place? According to experts, there are several key reasons. First, there’s the global threat of antibiotic resistance. As human medicine implements its antibiotic stewardship programs, so too does agriculture.

This was most notably seen by the 2017 implementation of the Veterinary Feed Directive that banned growth promotion use of human medically important antibiotics across all food animal species.

Second, although it could be the most pressing reason to livestock farmers, the push to adopt RWA programs comes increasingly from restaurants, grocers and other retailers of meat, egg and dairy products that clearly think it’s a niche worth pursuing.

“… pork producers and all those in food animal agriculture are seeing and hearing more about programs such as raised without antibiotics.”

– Dave Pyburn, DVM, Pork Checkoff

RWA’s On-farm Impacts

From a practical standpoint, the survey asked respondents about their experience with common swine diseases in RWA and conventional animal flows. Interestingly, similar disease challenges were experienced by RWA and conventional respondents within each of the species groups. Likewise, respondents in all commodities indicated that RWA production would have negative impacts on animals, including increased morbidity, mortality and culling rates.

Specifically with swine, respondents were asked to gauge disease challenges from A. suis, H. parasuis, Step suis, E. coli, Mycoplasma, ileitis, Salmonella and erysipelas. General trends were very similar between conventional and RWA production in most areas. For example, more than 65 percent of RWA and conventional swine respondents ranked respiratory system disorders as their primary health and welfare challenge.

According to the survey’s findings, a majority of veterinary and producer respondents across all animal commodities indicated that RWA leads to decreased production efficiency and worse animal health and welfare. This was indicated by more than 80 percent of conventional respondents who believe morbidity and mortality rates increase with RWA adoption and by more than 70 percent of RWA adopters themselves.

Wishnie says that reported concerns for animal health and welfare were the most commonly cited reasons for not participating in a RWA production system.

Disconnect Exists on Outcomes

Production respondents across commodities and production types indicated that they believed that RWA production slightly or significantly worsens animal health and welfare. In contrast, they believed that their food-chain customers think that RWA production improves health and welfare, as shown in the chart on the previous page.

“These discrepancies indicate that veterinarians and producers feel that retailers do not understand the potential negative impacts of RWA programs on animal health and welfare,” Wishnie said.

Wishnie is quick to point out that the survey results should not be viewed as an overall condemnation of RWA programs. “The study does not say overall that RWA is not sustainable or that there was a preponderance of downsides or pitfalls. We simply found that the RWA respondents, who have actual experience in RWA production, observed negative impacts on animal health and welfare.”

The most commonly identified reasons for deciding to raise swine without the use of antibiotics were market-driven, including the need to fulfill a client/customer request, to increase sale price of animals/product and to gain market entry into a retail program.

What’s Next?

Aside from the primary concerns of animal health, welfare and food safety, producers clearly must face the economic reality that adopting or not adopting an RWA program may bring.

Survey respondents indicated that RWA programs would likely increase their cost of production from slightly to significantly. However, they felt that demand for their commodity’s products would only increase slightly or not change at all.

Aside from the downside that respondents attributed to RWA regarding animal health and welfare, it’s not surprising that they also see a need for increased auditing/assessment of animal health and welfare if RWA systems are practiced. That’s something for would-be adoptees of RWA to consider as well.

While this survey provides some keen insights in the RWA world, Pyburn at the National Pork Board urges pork producers to seek additional input. Before making any major changes to production practices, including RWA, he recommends consulting with trusted partners such as your herd veterinarians, consultants and of course, your fellow producers.

About the survey…

A consortium of consultants, including ones from California Polytechnic University, Kansas State University and the University of Minnesota, were sponsored by the Animal Agriculture Alliance. They surveyed a cross-section from the food-animal industry, including veterinarians, producers and other stakeholders involved directly in raising broilers, turkeys, swine, beef cattle or dairy cattle.

The survey’s purpose was to investigate the impacts of removing antibiotics from the food animal supply chain on key parameters, such as animal health and welfare, food safety, consumer demand and cost of food production.

The survey had 565 respondents, with 148 (26 percent) swine-related. Respondents with either past or current RWA experience were grouped together as “RWA respondents,” and those with no RWA experience were considered “conventional respondents.” The conventional respondents group, therefore, included individuals who may have eliminated specific antibiotics from production but may have not raised animals in an RWA production system.