Sick Meat: How Antibiotics Have Taken Over the American Livestock Industry

October 14, 2019

My dear friend who is a nurse at a hospital in Connecticut came to me asking about how meat consumption could be affecting her patients’ responsiveness to antibiotics during treatments. She wanted to know how big of an issue this really is, and how concerned we should be about minute doses of antibiotics in the conventionally produced meats and animal products that many of us consume every day. Here are the basics to get you started:

What’s Going On
Why on earth would we feed animals antibiotics? The answer is sad, but very necessary based on the way

meat is produced conventionally in this country. In a typical American feed lot, thousands of chickens, hogs or cattle are crammed together in extremely close proximity in CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) where they are raised conventionally for a period of time before being shipped to a slaughterhouse. The animals often have no other option than to reside in their own (and their neighbor’s) fecal matter, and are fed grains they wouldn’t naturally eat in unsanitary conditions. This environment makes them incredibly prone to respiratory infections and contagious diseases. By feeding their livestock supplemental and "therapeutic" doses of antibiotics, processors are artificially keeping them from contracting and spreading diseases, and the animals are able to grow bigger, faster. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health 42% of beef cattle and 88% of swine in the U.S. are supplemented with tylosin to prevent a liver condition that might impact growth. Furthermore 16% of dairy cows in the U.S. receive antibiotic therapy for clinical mastitis each year, however near all conventionally raised dairy cows receive intramammary infusions as a preventative of the condition. Chances are, if you eat any sort of conventionally produced animal product in the U.S., the animal was at one point likely fed some type of antibiotic.

 

Why We Should Be Concerned
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, 70-80% of all antibiotics in the U.S. are not fed to

humans, but to healthy livestock to prevent disease in CAFO’s and other livestock operations. The excessive use of antibiotics we feed our “food” encourages the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains and gives them a better chance of survival when removed from their original environment. The evolution of strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria are such a serious public health threat because the antibiotics fed to animals are so similar to those we use to treat human infections and other ailments. For example, “poultry products often carry at least one  bacterial strain, and it is now increasingly likely that the bacteria in the meat [we] buy is an antibiotic-resistant strain.” If the meat we consume is under-cooked or allowed to contaminate other food products, the bacteria is able to transition into our water sources, bodies, or ecosystems. If this happens, we are unable to treat food poisoning, infections, or other ailment with antibiotics since the bacteria has evolved through the animal to be unresponsive, and is now living in our own bodies. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that drug-resistant bacteria cause 35,000 deaths and 2.3 million illnesses each year. Many of these incidents underwent attempted treatments, which failed or were not fully effective using antibiotics.

Ever heard the saying “what goes up, must come down?” Well, what goes in, must come out. No matter if that’s before or after the animal is slaughtered, the result is still a negative impact on the environment and human consumer health. According to Princeton University, the nearly 2 trillion tons of animal waste produced in the U.S. each year “contain significant amounts of undigested antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can contaminate surface and ground water, harm natural ecosystems, and eventually make their way back to humans.” This assumption suggests that even if you choose not to consume meat products, living in proximity to a conventional animal feeding operation where antibiotics are used, sharing their groundwater source, or even living downstream from one many miles away means you are possibly being exposed to negative impacts of antibiotic use.

It Won’t Stop Any Time Soon
The use of antibiotics in meat around the world is a vital component to keeping up with food demands. As developing and developed countries get richer, increased meat consumption becomes a status symbol of wealth and a Western lifestyle. The American Association for the Advancement of Science explains, “In 2013, more than 131,000 tons of antibiotics were used in food animals worldwide; by 2030, it will be more than 200,000 tons."

 

Recent (slightly comical) attempts have been made by fast food corporations such as McDonald’s and Chik-fil-A to show their support for the anti-antibiotics movement. In the past few years both companies have pledged to stop buying from poultry producers who feed antibiotics to their chickens, however the production methods of their beef and pork suppliers remain the same. According to CBC news in 2015, the White House even announced it would purchase meat with “less antibiotics” for White House staff cafeterias and government buildings… cool. If our policymakers are avoiding meats containing antibiotics…shouldn’t they be supporting the same actions for the general public? Hmmm…

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working on a new proposed policy that gives meat producers the option to phase away from antibiotic use in their production, while having the ability to raise their prices as compensation. The FDA recently announced that it will “ask pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily stop labeling drugs important for treating human infection as acceptable for that growth promotion in animals.” According to reporter Mary Clare Jalonik, drug companies will have three years to comply with this new government request. An important loophole to consider is that this is a guided and encouraged request. The FDA’s reasoning for lack of mandated legislation is that such an action would require strict regulation that could take years to formulate and consequently millions of dollars in planning and enforcement that the agency simply doesn’t have a budget for. Consumers are expected to respond well to this proposal, and assumed to be willing to pay more for healthier meats and animal products that do not contain added antibiotics. However, what about those who care, but cannot afford to continue their meat consumption under rising prices?

How You Can Avoid “Drugged” Meat
The demand for meat around the world seems to be way too overwhelming at this point to simply mandate that antibiotic use in livestock for meat production be outlawed, or even regulated. If you choose to avoid conventional industrial meats to decrease your exposure to unnecessary antibiotics, you are unfortunately on your own. The only thing you can do is buy from local or small-scale producers who you know do not feed their livestock antibiotics, or look for labels on larger producer’s packaging at the supermarket. Beware: "Natural" and "Raised Without Hormones" do not mean that no antibiotics were used! Change is happening extremely slowly, and it will only continue in response to consumer demand. In a CNN special that grades fast food chains on their procurement of sustainably produced meats, only Panera Bread and Chipotle received high marks for voluntarily cutting out their antibiotic-using suppliers from not just chicken, but all of their meat products. Our food system officials and government policymakers do not seem to think of this as a pressing issue to be immediately addressed. If you are concerned about what’s in your meat, we encourage you to be active in political groups and food system advocacy, make a statement with your own consumption, and continue researching how your food can affect your long-term health.

If you’re interested in continuing to learn about antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the magnitude ohow a switch to sustainable production methods would affect the U.S. economy, check out this article by the Center for Global Development. 

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