How Some In Beef Industry Are Bucking Antibiotics Use : The Salt Most beef cattle receive antibiotics in their feed to prevent liver abscesses while eating a high-energy diet. There's growing pressure on feedlots to stop this — and some have. But it's costly.

Some In The Beef Industry Are Bucking The Widespread Use Of Antibiotics. Here's How

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The next time you eat a hamburger or a steak, chances are it'll come from an animal that was fed antibiotics during the last few months of its life. This is one of the most controversial uses of antibiotics in American farming. There is growing pressure on the beef industry to stop the practice; some cattle feedlots already have. NPR's Dan Charles visited a farm to understand the tradeoffs.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: It was cold and wet the day I visited Phelps County Feeders near Kearney, Neb.; a bad day for Joe Klute, one of the owners here. The weather was making his 15,000 cattle miserable, and unhappy cattle don't gain weight.

JOE KLUTE: You know, I mean, you spend all this time and energy and effort and money to put weight on them that you hope to get paid on, and now it's going to be gone.

CHARLES: Really? Just because of the stress?

KLUTE: The weather stress.

CHARLES: Klute shows me the raw ingredients of beef - cattle feed, giant bales of hay, piles of chopped up fermented corn plants called silage, steaming flattened kernels of corn...

KLUTE: They get corn flakes for breakfast just like we do.

CHARLES: ...Also micro ingredients like vitamins. They get dissolved in water, mixed into truckloads of corn and hay.

KLUTE: On a 20,000-pound load, those micro ingredients are probably going to be less than less than a pound.

CHARLES: And one of these micro ingredients is a drug, an antibiotic called tylosin. It's in there because when cattle eat a high-energy diet, which they do in feedlots to fatten them up quickly, many develop abscesses of the liver. A little tylosin every day keeps the abscesses away, which is great for the feedlot, but Lance Price, who runs the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says it's not so great for the rest of us.

LANCE PRICE: It's basically a public health decision that they're making.

CHARLES: Tylosin is very similar to an antibiotic that people take, Price says, erythromycin. It's an important tool to fight off infections, and we should use those drugs sparingly.

PRICE: When you feed these antibiotics to these animals, it puts pressure on all the bacteria that are in and on that animal, right? And those bacteria respond to that antibiotic and eventually become resistant to it.

CHARLES: Down the line, these bacteria could infect people, and you wouldn't be able to treat them with erythromycin. The Food and Drug Administration has stopped some uses of antibiotics in animals. Farmers can't use them anymore to make cattle grow faster, but they can give drugs to treat or prevent disease, including liver abscesses, which gets Lance Price kind of angry.

PRICE: We are creating this disease. We are creating liver abscesses in these animals by the way we're raising them.

CHARLES: Raise them differently, he says, and you wouldn't need tylosin. In fact, some people in the beef industry are already doing this. They're doing it at Phelps County Feeders. About 40 percent of the cattle at Joe Klute's cold, wet feedlot are not getting any tylosin; no growth-promoting hormones either. Klute sells this beef as all natural, gets more money for it. I visited another farm in Iowa that's completely antibiotic free. It grows cattle for the company Niman Ranch, and both places are doing it pretty much the same way.

JOHN TARPOFF: We change how the cattle are fed, and we don't have to use tylosin or other antibiotics.

CHARLES: This is John Tarpoff, Niman Ranch's vice president of beef. They feed more hay and silage, less energy-rich flaked corn. This diet's easier on their stomachs.

TARPOFF: The idea is you have to protect the whole digestive system.

CHARLES: But there is a tradeoff. The animals grow more slowly. To gain the same amount of weight, it can take these animals five months compared to maybe four months on conventional feed with tylosin. So raising cattle without antibiotics costs; more. Tarpoff says 15 or 18 percent more.

TARPOFF: We get the complaint all time. Gee, your product costs more than the other guys. Well, yeah, it does.

CHARLES: Some big customers are willing to pay for antibiotic-free production - Whole Foods, Shake Shack. Last December, big news - McDonald's announced it's taking steps to cut antibiotic use by its beef suppliers.

What's your reaction to that?

TARPOFF: It's not so easily done.

CHARLES: This industry's always been driven to cut costs, Tarpoff says. It'll be interesting to see what happens now. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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