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Your Steak Is Getting More Antibiotics Than You Are
We might have bigger problems than fighting that cough. A new report reveals that the same antibiotics prescribed to cure sick people are also being fed to healthy animals destined for human consumption. But pumping livestock full of antibiotics isn’t doing any of us any favors. Instead, the practice is contributing to the development of “superbugs,” or bacteria that are immune to treatment, that are making infections harder and more expensive to treat.
What’s the Deal?
The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public policy, has created an infographic comparing human use of antibiotics to treat illness with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) latest data on antibiotics sold or distributed for use in animals. The graphic reveals that human antibiotic use has leveled off at below eight billion pounds a year. Meanwhile, meat and poultry farms have been using up record numbers of the stuff each year — reaching a new high of almost 29.9 billion pounds in 2011.
In fact, the use of antibiotics in livestock may be expanding at a greater rate than the meat industry itself. While the American Meat Institute reported a 0.2 percent increase in meat and poultry production in 2011 compared to 2010, antibiotic consumption jumped 2 percent over the same time period — suggesting meat production might be relying more heavily on antibiotics. All told, the livestock industry now uses nearly four-fifths of the antibiotics administered in the U.S.
Why It Matters
Antibiotics are typically administered to livestock in attempts to make them grow faster and to compensate for the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions typical of factory farms. But here’s the rub: When animals are crammed together and regularly dosed with antibiotics, the bacteria living on and in the animals can gradually begin to develop resistance to the drugs. These resistant strains can easily pass to humans when we consume animal products.
To look more closely at the issue of drug resistance, Pew analyzed the FDA’s latest results from its National Antimocrobial Resistance Monitoring System. The sobering stats, as reported by Mother Jones, include the fact that nearly three-quarters of the salmonella found on retail chicken breasts were resistant to at least one antibiotic (about 12 percent of retail chicken breast and ground turkey samples were contaminated with salmonella). Of the salmonella bacteria discovered on ground turkey, about 78 percent were resistant to at least one antibiotic and — perhaps most strikingly — half the bacteria were resistant to three or more. These figures represent an increase in bacterial resistance compared to 2010.
Last year, the FDA proposed a set of voluntary guidelines encouraging the meat industry to cut back on antibiotics. But Pew’s research reveals the industry has been slow to take heed. It’s clear that more stringent requirements are necessary, lest “drug-resistant bacteria” become a new dinner staple.
Are you concerned about antibiotic resistance and the meat industry? Share in the comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @lauranewc.
Comments Leave a comment
Excellent post, Laura. I'm glad to see Greatist tackling tough issues like factory farms and their impact on our health!!!
Please know that the flu is a virus, and therefore antibiotics do not work against the flu. There are antivirals that doctors can prescribe for the flu (e.g. Tamiflu, Relenza) but these are NOT antibiotics.
@GeorgiaIvsin Hi Georgia, you're right! The wording we used in that instance was more for dramatic effect, but it's been tweaked to be more accurate. Thanks for the catch!
Antibiotics are not given to livestock because they are in "overcrowded" and "unsanitary" conditions. Antibiotics are used in order to improve growth. Cattle for instance are ruminants which means that bacteria in the gut alter feed into a form that cattle can use. Antibiotics help to alter the bacterial populations so more desirable bacterial populations exist. They may also be used for to improve animal health when they are sick.
It is very biased and offensive to not only call large scale farms "factory farms", but it is also to assume that large scale farms have overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. In most cases large farms have better conditions than smaller farms since they have the monetary resources to provide their animals with the best facilities and care. Moreover, if animals were in overcrowded or unsanitary conditions, they would not perform well and would not be profitable to raise. Finally, just because a farm is large, does not mean that the farmer cares less about his/her animals.
@DevanMPC Despite the fact that you're about half wrong, you're making a meaningless point. I don't care why animals are pumped full of antibiotics. If it's harmful to people, then farmers need to be forced by law to stop. Every single study and every bit of science says cattle should be raised in an open field and fed grass in order to be the healthiest and gain the fastest without cheating (antibiotics). And yet, most cattle will spend at least some portion of their life before slaughter packed into a feed lot and fed corn-based feed. While in this feed lot, they'll become depressed, be covered in fecal matter, and get sick from the corn-based feed they aren't biologically adapted to eat.
I'm a farmer. I don't raise cattle because we don't have the land and resources required to ethically raise cattle. But, as a farmer, I know that many farmers don't care about the ethics of raising animals. And that's why these animals get pumped full of antibiotics, potentially endangering the entire US population. And they fight against regulatory change meant to protect Americans because it hurts their bottom line.
So, if you want sympathy, stop pumping your animals full of antibiotics, raise them in an open field, and feed them grasses. Otherwise, profit is your only motive and you really aren't much different than the bankers getting bailed out by the government every other week.
@Staleek Conventionally raised cattle (ie. those that spend the last 3-5 months of life on a feedlot eating a forage and grain based diet) produce more meat per animal, use less resources (ie. water, land, feed), and produce less waste (ie. greenhouse gases and manure) than grass fed cattle. I can get you a host of actual scientific journal articles to support this.
Also, there is this delightful study by Dr. Hurd in the Journal of Food Protection. He actually determined the likelihood of getting sick due to antibiotic resistant bacteria due to the use of antibiotics in livestock production. The risk is "slightly less than 1 in 10 million for all meat commodities combined. For poultry, beef,and pork, the probabilities were slightly less than 1 in 14 million, 1 in 53 million, and 1 in 236 million, respectively."
But I appreciate that although you don't actually raise cattle, you feel that you know more about it than someone who does raise them and who has multiple degrees in the subject of their nutrition and production.
I am so inspired by you that I think next time I go to the doctor I am going to tell him I know more about medicine because I once put a band-aide on myself.
are there any way to define wether meat contains lots of antibiotics, or not?
I mean, some simple tips, that we can use before buying meat?
@amz_md No meat at the store will contain antibiotics. When livestock are fed antibiotics, they have a withdrawal period. This is a period of time before harvest that the animal cannot be given antibiotics. This time period varies for each antibiotic, but it does allow enough time for the antibiotics to clear the system. At the packing plant, meat is also regularly checked for any product that might contain antibiotics. If meat is found to contain antibiotics, it thrown out and the producer that provided it is monitored. You should be sure to properly handle meat to prevent food borne illness due to bacteria on the meat. This article is referring to the increased risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria that might end up on meat. You should follow the USDA guidelines to make sure you are not ingesting these bacteria.
@DevanMPC Thanks for your reply!Basing on your comments to this post, you know a lot about this matter. Are you a farmer?
Many things used on livestock are not used for people. There are also withdrawal recommendations to follow.