Antibiotics use — especially in food-producing animals — is a hot topic. But new University of Illinois research shows that antibiotic use in pork production does offer benefits.

The study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics, provides a detailed look at the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. Among the findings, antibiotics increase daily growth rates, reduce swine death rates during the grow/finish production stage, and increase producer profitability by 9 percent. The study is based on industry statistics compiled in the 1990s. Researchers found that a pork producer operating a 1,020-head finishing barn, realize a 59-cent-per-pig profit in annual returns.

“Antibiotics used for growth promotion have a positive impact on production efficiency and producer profitability,” says Gay Miller, professor of veterinary pathobiology and of agricultural and consumer economics. “When production is more efficient, consumers receive more products at lower prices.”

Improved efficiency means fewer animals are needed to produce the same amount of product. Also, fewer resources are needed and less manure is generated. “You see a reduction of other environmental concerns as well,” she notes.

Antibiotics have been used at subtherapeutic levels for livestock production since the 1950s, but such use has come under question recently because of rising antibiotic resistance in human and veterinary medicine.

This new study looks solely at the U.S. pork industry, which involves large production facilities; and advances in genetics, management and production techniques. A preliminary analysis of even newer data, Miller says, reveals that productivity and profit estimates may be somewhat higher.

The study suggests that a ban on antibiotic use, such as has occurred in Denmark, would result in sharp increases in U.S. pork production costs, notes co-author Paul McNamara, professor of agricultural and consumer economics.

“Many analysts speak about subtherapeutic use of antibiotics as if it had no production value,” he notes. “This view is puzzling, because with competitive pressures facing producers, if the input didn’t provide a significant production benefit, we would expect producers to drop its use to save money and realize higher profits.”

He believes the study’s results help quantify antibiotics’ importance in today’s production environment. “Understanding their importance and role in production is necessary if we are going to shape antibiotic-use policies that consider the public-health risks as well as the economic benefits.’

The study did find that producers who adjust feed rations five or more times to accommodate growing pigs’ needs, may use less antibiotics. Additional work is needed to understand how antibiotics provide specific benefits in the various production phases.