Farmers and consumers lack clear data on antibiotics for hogs

Use for prevention of disease in large confinements comes into question

Hogs gather in January in the outdoor pens Denny Rehberg uses at his farm near Walker. (Helaina Thompson/IowaWatch)
Hogs gather in January in the outdoor pens Denny Rehberg uses at his farm near Walker. (Helaina Thompson/IowaWatch)

Heidi Vittetoe wants consumers to put the use of antibiotics on livestock into perspective.

“A lot of times you hear things that would imply that we shovel antibiotics at livestock, and really, nothing could be further from the truth,” the Washington, Iowa, hog farmer said. “In the whole life of a pig, the amount of antibiotic that the pig would get via feed would fit in (a) water bottle cap.”

Heightened concerns about growing resistance to antibiotics has called the use on livestock into question, but not without pushback from large hog confinement operators like Vittetoe who say they are using antibiotics judiciously.

While antibiotic sales reports are available, robust data for making clear decisions about antibiotic regulations in animals do not exist.

“Sales data, in general, cannot provide ... information on exactly why these antibiotics are used,” said Dr. Karin Hoelzer of Pew Charitable Trust’s Antibiotic Resistance Project. “What specific disease or condition — what’s the cause for using these antibiotics?”

Hoelzer and the Pew project are calling for clearer data to identify opportunities for reducing the use of antibiotics on livestock.

Iowa is home to nearly a third of the nation’s hogs, with more than 22 million hogs at a given time — or about seven hogs for every Iowan.

How animals are housed, fed and raised largely determines the need for antibiotics. Outlawing livestock antibiotic use would upend deep-seated practices of most large hog confinement operations.


Denny Rehberg, a small-scale antibiotic-free hog farmer in Walker, raises hogs outdoors. He is no fan of hog confinement operations.

“Did the pig create the environment, or did the building create the pig? I’m thinking the building created the pig is what we got today,” he said.


In the United States, roughly 70 percent of antimicrobials important in human health are sold for livestock use. Antimicrobials kill or slow the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. Antimicrobials used in animals are classified as ‘important in human health’ when they can be used for both human and animal medicine.

Antibiotics are one type of antimicrobial specific to bacteria, although the two terms are often used interchangeably.

The pork and beef industries lag behind the chicken industry in reducing antibiotic use, critic Avinash Kar of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement following the December 2017 release of an Food and Drug Administration report.

The report estimated that 2016 sales of antimicrobials approved for use in livestock decreased overall by 10 percent from 2015. However, since the FDA began collecting data in 2009, overall antimicrobial sales have increased by 9 percent. In 2016, 6 percent of antimicrobials important in human health were intended for use in chickens, while 37 percent were intended for use in swine and 43 percent were intended for use in cattle.

The Des Moines-based National Pork Board called the report “validation of the hard work U.S. pig farmers have put in to reduce the overall need for antibiotics while still protecting the health and welfare of the pigs under their care.”

Pork producers have taken on greater responsibility for antimicrobial use. In January 2017, amid growing pressure from consumers and activist groups, the FDA implemented a new rule for livestock producers that requires a veterinarian’s permission to mass- medicate animals with antibiotics important in human health through feed. The rule also says antibiotics can be used for disease treatment and prevention, but no longer for growth promotion.


Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

A sales report showing results from these changes is expected to be released by the FDA later this year.

“A lot of times you hear things that would imply that we shovel antibiotics at livestock, and really, nothing could be further from the truth."

- Heidi Vittetoe

General Manager, J.W. Vittetoe Pork Ltd

From conversations with colleagues, Dr. Chris Rademacher, a swine extension veterinarian at Iowa State University, said he expects the next FDA report to show a decrease in swine antimicrobial sales.


Vittetoe is the general manager of J.W. Vittetoe Pork Ltd., a concentrated animal feeding operation that produces 300,000 hogs annually. She has 80 employees and works with 40 local farmers as contract growers.

Vittetoe said the FDA’s veterinarian rule “has created a fair amount of tracking burden” requiring extra paperwork. But, “if those things help consumers feel a higher level of trust, that we are working with them, not against them, to produce a safe, affordable food supply, then fine,” she said.

Hogs in large confinement areas are treated with antibiotics for a variety of reasons. They are weaned from their mothers before they can acquire all of the antibodies they need. Other reasons include the food in their diets and the animals’ proximity to each other, which could spread disease quickly.

Vittetoe said she opposes removing antibiotics from her facility. “Is that really the best animal welfare? Is that really the best well-being of animals is to say, we’re going to withhold antibiotics? No.”

Although the FDA has outlawed the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, critics, including the World Health Organization, fault the FDA for allowing antibiotics to be used preventively when risk exists but no clinical signs do.

In 2007, the Animal Health Institute estimated 13 percent of animal antibiotics were used for growth promotion, suggesting the majority of antibiotics used in agriculture have been employed for disease prevention and treatment.



But it is difficult to determine the percentage of antibiotics intended for preventive use because those drugs have often overlapped with antibiotics intended for growth promotion. Sales data have not distinguished between the two reasons for use.

Rehberg said there are other ways than antibiotics to prevent disease.

“What do you need to get away from antibiotics? You need back fat. You need the sunshine and the fresh air,” he said.

For nearly 27 years, Rehberg and Lea Rehberg, his wife, have raised hogs without antibiotics. Before that, the Rehbergs operated a CAFO and used antibiotics on their hogs regularly. Rehberg was preparing to leave the industry when his young son’s ear infections stopped responding to antibiotics, which “put a spark in our heads,” he said.

“Even back then people were associating antibiotics in animals with antibiotics in humans. And at some point in time there was going to be resistance built up for the antibiotics,” Rehberg said. “So, at that point in time I thought, well, it’s just time that I do my part and try to go antibiotic-free and see how it works. Which, it’s worked fine.”

The reason for his son’s ear infections was unknown, but Rehberg’s concerns were grounded in what is now widely accepted by public health experts: overuse and misuse of antibiotics drives bacterial resistance, which could make the drugs less effective in animals and humans.

Drug-resistant bacteria can spread from animals to humans through contaminated meat, water, soil and manure. One Iowa City Veterans Affairs Health Care System study found that patients who lived within a mile of a large hog confinement facility were about three times more likely to carry the bacteria methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. The bacteria, though, was not necessarily antibiotic-resistant or making the patients sick.

At most, Rehberg raises 400 hogs per year, he said. He recognized that his operation is vastly different from those of large producers.

“I have the tools that work with my operation,” he said, “and they have to have a completely different toolbox to work with their operation.”


Critics say using antibiotics for preventive use takes the place of more expensive and time-consuming animal husbandry techniques, such as later weaning and spreading out the animals.

So far, two states have adopted tougher antibiotic usage laws. California and Maryland have passed bills restricting routine antibiotic use for disease prevention. Both laws went into effect Jan. 1. No such bills have been introduced in Iowa.

This article was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs, a nonprofit, news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.


Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.