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Odds are your holiday meal was vaccinated

Unless you are vegan, odds are that your holiday meal was vaccinated. Whether you had prime rib, a Christmas ham or a turkey with all its fixings, vaccination was involved. Even the whipped cream on the pumpkin pie came from a vaccinated dairy cow. While most of us appreciate the role vaccines play in keeping us and our pets healthy, few recognize the major role vaccines play in our food supply. 

Our grocery stores are full of products containing ingredients from vaccinated animals. The number and type of vaccines animals receive vary greatly depending on the type of animal, the food produced (meat, eggs or milk) and the diseases in the area where the animals are raised. Poultry, including turkeys, typically receive anywhere from three to eight vaccines. Broiler chickens and laying hens may receive different vaccines. Cattle are vaccinated against upwards of eight diseases, while swine are predictably vaccinated against three. Vaccination schedules tend to be complex. Like humans, food animals may require multi-dose series and regular boosters.

Vaccinating large herds of cattle or huge flocks of chickens is challenging. It is important that the vaccines are inexpensive and easy to give to minimize costs. Injecting vaccines is difficult and time-consuming, so they are delivered whenever possible in sprays, eye drops, feed or drinking water. When utilizing these other methods, it is necessary to ensure each animal receives an adequate dose of vaccine. For instance, the farmer must ensure that each animal eats an adequate amount of treated feed which is often difficult in a flock of birds.

Infectious diseases spread easily in herds, flocks and production facilities. Vaccinations keep animals healthy decreasing losses due to death. Several animal vaccines prevent diseases that typically cause miscarriages and stillbirths. Young animals, like human infants, are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases and are more likely to live to maturity if vaccinated. Vaccinated beef cattle, pigs and poultry grow better and produce more meat. Vaccination also improves the productivity of dairy cows and laying hens.  

The result is that our food is safer. Vaccines prevent some animal diseases that could contaminate food and cause human illness. Additionally, healthy animals are less likely to require antibiotics. Antibiotic use in animals is a major cause of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. When animals are given antibiotics, their bacteria become resistant. The resistant bacteria may contaminate food or even transfer their genes for antibiotic resistance to bacteria that routinely grow on our bodies.

Even “organically” grown animals are vaccinated. For food to be labeled organic, federal law requires that the vaccines given are USDA approved. Importantly, “free-range” animals are also vaccinated because their roaming often exposes them to diseases carried by wildlife.

As much as some would like to deny it, vaccines are an important part of our lives. They protect us and our pets from illness. They also help keep our food affordable, safer, and healthier.

Megan Berman
Richard Rupp
Vaccine Smarts is written by Sealy Institute for Vaccine Sciences faculty members Drs. Megan Berman, an associate professor of internal medicine, and Richard Rupp, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch. For questions about vaccines, email