With the discovery of antibiotic resistance, “superbugs,” and the knowledge that antibiotics can cause serious health complications (to the extent that you could need a fecal transplant to live), people are slowly becoming wary of taking antibiotics to treat everyday illnesses and minor infections. But it turns out that if we’re really concerned about antibiotic resistance and the over-prescription of drugs, we should be looking at our food, not our doctors: According to Mother Jones, the meat industry now uses a scary 80% of all antiobiotics in the U.S.
The number is kind of shocking in an abstract way, and it triggers a mysterious unease with factory farming. But it’s not just a vaguely creepy number that can be rationally justified if you just know more about the livestock industry and public health; it’s a concrete problem,and data about how antibiotic use in livestock and poultry impacts our health proves it.
Here are a few reasons you shouldn’t want antibiotics in your meat:
Reason #1: Use of antibiotics in animals can spread antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella and Campylobacter in humans.
An FDA report from 2012 outlines how consumption of chicken leads to the spread of antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter (a type of food-borne illness that’s been linked to drinking raw milk in the past) in humans. They clearly explain the link in the report [emphasis added]:
Selection for antimicrobial resistant and multi-drug resistant bacteria is a hazard associated with drug use in both human and veterinary medicine (6, 124). Animals serve as reservoirs for many food borne pathogens, including Salmonella and Campylobacter. Antibiotic resistant food borne pathogens may be present in or on animals as a result of drug use in animals. When an animal is treated with an antimicrobial drug, a selective pressure is applied to all bacteria associated with that animal. Bacteria that are sensitive to the antimicrobial are killed, while bacteria that have the ability to resist the antimicrobial can persist and replace the sensitive bacteria. In addition, bacteria can become resistant when resistance genes are passed from a resistant bacterium to a sensitive one. Thus, antimicrobial agents may increase the prevalence of resistant bacteria among both target pathogens and normal bacterial flora. These resistant food borne pathogens, like susceptible pathogens, may contaminate a carcass at slaughter (100, 101), and can be transmitted to humans through consumption and handling of contaminated food (32, 33, 45, 46). When these bacteria cause an illness that needs treatment, medical therapy may be compromised if the pathogenic bacteria are resistant to the drug(s) used for treatment (42, 80).
It makes perfect sense: If animals are sick or infected with nasty bacteria, and you eat them, there’s a good chance you’ll eat whatever is making them sick. And if whatever’s making them sick is already resistant to antibiotics, then you’re going to have a hell of a time treating it with antibiotics by the time you get it.
Reason #2: If animals eat antibiotics, and you eat animals, you could be eating antibiotics, too.
The Office of Research in FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine issued a report in 2000 proving that, although they’re prohibited for use in laying hens, certain antibiotic drug residues were still found in eggs sold for human consumption. From their report:
Failure to observe the label directions for these drugs and unintentional contamination of feed for laying hens could cause violative residues in eggs for human consumption. In recent years, the public has become more concerned about the emergence of strains of bacteria resistant to fluoroquinolones, as these drugs are increasingly used in treatment of human bacterial diseases.
So not only is the use of antibiotics in animals increasing our risk of exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria; it’s also increasing the chance that we’re getting our meat and eggs with a side of drugs. And we did mention the whole poop transplant thing, right?
Reason #3: Food-borne illness is on the rise, and antibiotic use in animals IS causing an uptick in antibiotic-resistant food-borne illness.
According to a report from the Public Interest Research Group, food-borne illness has gone up 44% in just two years. To put that into perspective, consider their release:
Contaminated food makes 48 million Americans sick every year and costs over $77 billion in aggregated economic costs. In the USA over the last 21 months, 1753 people were made sick from foodborne illnesses linked directly to food recalls and the cost was over $227 million.
And according to the Mother Jones article about antibiotic use in animals, there’s plenty of evidence that antibiotic resistance is way up, too. Here are a few statistics to bring that home:
- 78% of Salmonella strains found in ground turkey were resistant to at least one antibiotic and half of the bacteria were resistant to three or more.
- Almost 75% of the Salmonella found on retail chicken breast were resistant to at least one antibiotic, and about 12% of retail chicken breast and ground turkey samples were contaminated with Salmonella.
- 95% of chicken products are contaminated with Campylobacter, and nearly half of those bacteria were resistant to tetracyclines [an antibiotic commonly prescribed to humans].
There’s plenty you can do to minimize your chances of actually contracting a foodborne illness or ingesting antibiotic resistant bacteria in your food. But if you’re worried about antibiotic resistance (and I hope by now, you realize that you should be), then you should start minimizing your consumption of meat and dairy that comes from animals treated with drugs.
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