Ground-breaking research eliminates antibiotics from animal meat

UW-Madison conducts experiments to raise healthy cattle without medicine

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin are changing the face of the agriculture industry with a new way to get antibiotics out of meat.

Animal scientists noted the growing public concern about antibiotic resistance in their research, adding that overuse of antibiotics has led to drug-resistant infections like MRSA.

About 80 percent of antibiotics in the country are used by farmers to protect their herds against disease and help the animals grow bigger and faster, even as more medical experts and parents sound the alarm on antibiotics used in food.

In current studies, researchers are attempting to completely remove antibiotics from the process of growing animals.

The research first started in chickens. Animal science professor Mark Cook and associate researchers disabled a gene that helps defeat the immune system in sick hens.

From that discovery came ground-breaking work inside Arlington’s UW Beef Nutrition Farm, where researchers have been feeding those hens’ eggs to cattle in an effort to help prevent disease without the use of antibiotics.

“This would be an important new breakthrough in the control of diseases,” researcher Dan Scheafer said.

“So far the results have been good,” Manager Steve Arp said.

Parents particularly fearful of antibiotic impacts on public health are also excited by the research.

“Revolutionary,” dad Bartlett Durand said. “It’ll be fantastic.”

Aside from being a father to two young children, Duran also operates a local butcher shop, the Conscious Carnivore that sells antibiotic- and hormone-free meat. He’s also lobbied in Washington, D.C., against antibiotics in meats, and said the implications of UW’s research could be enormous.

“The concern is that by using antibiotics in animal agriculture, you weaken or even destroy their effectiveness in humans,” he said. “That is a terrifying thing as a parent. It’s horrific to think my children may grow up [in a world] where if they get a cut that causes a blood infection, they could die.”

Researchers in Arlington are hopeful about their early results, but remind people of the safeguards already in place when it comes to food.

For example, the Food and Drug Administration already prohibits antibiotics in meat. Farmers who use them are required to put their animals through a “withdrawal period” before they’re harvested to ensure no antibiotic residues reside in the meat.

“Our food is safe, but we want to continue to produce food in ways that also contribute to society’s ability to use antibiotics to maintain human health,” Scheafer said. “[It will] allow us to remain, as a nation, the source of the safest food supply for its population in the world.”