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Is the US Meat Industry Pushing Us Into a 'Post-Antibiotic Era'?

Big Meat’s rampant use of antibiotics—one of the biggest threats to public health of our time—isn't showing any signs of slowing down.
Photo via Flickr user John Donges

The meat industry in this country is a total disaster. Marred by constant concern over food safety that's accompanied by massive recalls, factory farms and slaughterhouses consistently hide their shady doings behind so-called "ag-gag laws" that effectively make it impossible to photograph or videotape what happens behind producers' gates.

Big Meat's rampant use of antibiotics is one of the most worrying aspects of the meat industry, an issue that unites public health advocates, doctors, consumers, and others in shared concern. The drugs, which are administered to healthy animals through their food and water to get cows, pigs, and chickens to grow faster, are the very same ones used to treat infections in people, and that's a dangerous notion: Such constant, low-level use in animals kills off the weak bacteria in the animal population, leaving behind a group of surviving bacteria that are actually extra-resistant to antibiotics. People can come into contact with these dangerous bacteria by eating meat, but about 75 percent of administered antibiotics aren't absorbed by the animal. Instead, they end up in its manure, and those who eat vegetables from fields fertilized with that manure are in danger of exposure, too. The real danger begins with an infection; treating the extra-hardy bacteria with standard antibiotics can be difficult because the bacteria are already used to them.

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The growth of the meat industry has not been so substantial as to justify such an increase in their purchases of these drugs.

Though such off-label use of the drugs has been criticized for decades—it began rousing concern in the scientific community just a few years after farmers' 1950 discovery that adding antibiotics to livestock feed helped animals pack on the pounds but cost less than traditional feed supplements—the practice continues to become more and more common. In a massive report issued earlier this month, authors at the FDA demonstrated a 16 percent rise in the sales of livestock antibiotics between 2009 and 2012.

"I wasn't surprised to see that use had continued to grow," said Keeve Nachman, director of the Center for a Livable Future's Food Production and Public Health Program at Johns Hopkins University. "But the growth of the meat industry," in the past few years, "has not been so substantial as to justify such an increase in their purchases of these drugs."

While a lot of media attention has been paid to the fact that the FDA recently recommended that factory farms reduce their reliance on antibiotics—without actually forcing companies to make any concrete changes in their purchasing habits—Nachman explained that the distinction doesn't really matter, as meat producers can choose to buy drugs labeled for treating infection but then simply continue to use them as feed additives, as they have in the past.

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"All the drug manufacturers have agreed to comply," he said. "That's because they know that they can stop selling drugs labeled for 'growth promotion' but then resubmit the same drug to the market labeled for 'disease prevention.'"

Thirty percent of doctors polled said they had a patient die or suffer significant complications from an antibiotic-resistant infection in the past year.

And as Nachman noted in a recent editorial published in Science, the big drug companies aren't at all worried about how the FDA's guidelines will affect their sales to big meat: last year, the chief executive of Zoetis, the country's largest manufacturer of pet medications and livestock vaccines, told the Wall Street Journal that the new recommendations "will not have a significant impact on our revenues."

"A drug company that makes its money from selling drugs doesn't expect to lose any as a result of these suggestions? To me it sounds like they're not going to work," Nachman said.

Nachman's biggest fear, and one that is shared especially by doctors, is an end to the effectiveness of antibiotics as a result of the meat industry's irresponsible use of the drugs. In a recent Consumer Reports poll, 93 percent of the 500 doctors polled were concerned about the use of antibiotics in livestock facilities, and 30 percent said they had had a patient die or suffer significant complications from an antibiotic-resistant infection in the past year. As Nachman put it in his editorial, we're rapidly progressing towards a "postantibiotic era."

Maybe you're a vegetarian who's chosen to opt out altogether, taking comfort in the fact that your pristine Brussels sprouts and wholesome tomatoes are a risk- and cruelty-free way to eat. Sorry, you're not safe either: Remember that the fields from which your vegetables are plucked are likely being fertilized with the untreated, antibiotic-laced literal shit produced by America's massive pork and beef factory farms. It's something to think about the next time you're massaging your raw kale.