President of the New Zealand Veterinary Association, Dr Steve Merchant, has set goals for meat produced in New Zealand to be free of antibiotics by 2030.
Antibiotics are currently fed to livestock to fatten them up, and make them more resistant to living conditions in large-scale or industrialised farms. However, the mainstream use of antibiotics is leading to a rise in forms of bacteria that are resistant or immune to treatment, posing a threat to both humans and animals. Dr Merchant explains, "with sharply increasing levels of resistance to antibiotics worldwide, we want animals and, by extension, humans to enter the ‘post-antibiotic’ era as safely as possible”.
A growing number of companies and campaigns are looking to reduce the use of antibiotics in meat production. Chipotle, for example, only serves antibiotic-free pork, chicken and beef. Earlier this year, McDonalds announced it would no longer source antibiotic-fed chicken, with Tyson Foods then following suit by planning to remove antibiotics from its entire livestock range by 2017.
However, this is the first time, a nation-wide goal of being antibiotic-free has been set by a country.
As Dr Merchant adds, “New Zealand is well suited to this challenge; given our size, proximity of the various specialities and relevant industry sectors, and already low use of antibiotics.
How will farmers adapt to rearing animals for human consumption without antibiotics? Alternative methods to support the development of healthy immune systems include enlarging barns, reducing overcrowding, and delaying weaning. However, these are expensive to implement, and could put pressure on farmers whose margins are already thin. How then will this additional cost be met? Will consumers be expected to pay a higher price for meat?
New Zealand is currently a major exporter to the two largest meat-consuming markets globally, China and the US, raising questions for the impact of its ambitions on its export industry. Could a higher price curb American and Chinese appetite for New Zealand’s meat, to the benefit of other, cheaper exporters?
Or will New Zealand benefit from growing consumer consciousness around the health implications of antibiotics in meat? Market-research firm IRI, for example, have found that sales of antibiotic free chicken in the US rose 34% by value in 2014.
A country-wide commitment to move away from antibiotics also raises the question of whether this pledge could be replicated elsewhere. To have full impact, the commitment to move beyond using antibiotics in meat production needs to occur at a global level. Who will take a lead on global standards and protocol for improved livestock practices, towards an antibiotic-free food system?
Image Credit: Rosino / Flickr
New Zealand Veterinary Association (July 20, 2015) Press release: Veterinarians set antibiotic goal for animals
Food & Environment Reporting Network: Maryn McKenna (November 20, 2013) Imagining the post-antibiotics future
Van Boeckel T.P. et al. (2015, February 18) Global trends in antimicrobial use in food animals
The Atlantic (2015, March 23) The Antibiotics Problem in Meat
The Wall Street Journal (November 3, 2014) Meat Companies Go Antibiotics-Free as More Consumers Demand It