Antibiotics

What are they?

Antibiotics are natural, semi-synthetic or synthetic agents that either kill bacteria or inhibit its growth. Antibiotics only attack bacteria; they do not work on viruses. Today there are as many as 150 different types of antibiotics, which can attack bacteria that cause everything from strep throat and sinus infections to life threatening infections of the heart.

Antibiotics and Agriculture

Since the 1950s, adding low levels of antibiotics to the feed or water of healthy cattle, swine and poultry has been standard procedure. By doing so, animals grow faster and are protected against infections that are likely to occur when they are confined in crowded, unsanitary and stressful environments.

The overuse of antibiotics in the livestock industry is a key reason drug-resistant bacteria is a growing public health risk.

By overusing antibiotics on CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and routinely feeding them to animals that don't have bacterial infections, we're making the drugs we rely on to treat human illnesses less effective and ultimately ineffective.

  • 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are used in food animals, the vast majority of which are not even sick.

  • According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, approximately 13.5 million pounds of antimicrobials prohibited in the European Union are used in agriculture for non-therapeutic purposes every year by U.S. livestock producers.

  • Driven primarily by increased use in poultry, overall use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes appears to have risen by about 50 percent since 1985 - Union of Concerned Scientists.

The enormous insertion of antibiotics into our food at factory farms is a certain contributor to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria and their transfer to humans through food, farm workers and soil and water contamination. Antibiotics end up in the excrement of farm animals and their manure which can contaminate nearby soil and water. This can be the very same manure and water that is sprayed onto food crops as fertilizer. So not only is the meat and dairy from these animals contaminated but nearby plants and food crops are as well. It is interesting to note that there is no regulation on manure used on organic crops, so it is possible that antibiotic contaminated manure may be used to fertilize organic crops.

Antibiotic Resistance

Obviously, anyone eating conventionally raised and grown food, is being exposed to a steady dose of antibiotics, contributing to the growing antibiotic resistant bacteria that threaten our health. Antibiotic resistance means that a specific bacterium has become resistant to a particular antibiotic that was previously effective. This is the result of the evolutionary "survival of the fittest" model. When an antibiotic does not kill all of the harmful bacteria, those that survive can mutate and reproduce, creating new, more resistant colonies. The result is a multi-resistant strain, sometimes called a superbug. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) is an example of an infection that, in the past, was effectively treated with antibiotics, but is now resistant to many of these drugs. We've all heard of MRSA spreading in hospitals and nursing homes, but it is also found in animals on factory farms.

It is estimated that 18,000 Americans die each years from drug-resistant infections.

  • A 2012 Stanford study showed that consumers eating meat and poultry raised without antibiotics are 33% less likely to contract antibiotic-resistant infections than those eating products raised conventionally.
  •  According to the Infectious Diseases Society of American, almost 2 million Americans develop hospital-acquired infections, resulting in 99,000 deaths each year, the vast majority of which are due to antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
  • MRSA kills approximately 19,000 people each year - more people than die from HIV/AIDS.
  • According to the National Academy of Sciences, health care costs in the United States associated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria exceeds $4 billion each year (This does not account for lost workdays and productivity or human suffering.

The frightening fact is that we have very few new antibiotics in the pipeline to replace those that are no longer effective. Those that we do have will be more expensive and may likely have greater side effects associated with them.

This video, Meat Without Drugs, puts the overuse of antibiotics for food animals into perspective. 

Why are so many antibiotics used on meat animals?

The practice of confining large numbers of any one kind of animal in a small space breeds disease. A pathogen that thrives on any one type of animals has a field day living off of confined animals, spreading from one to the next with no end in sight. The only way to prevent losing more animals to sickness is to pre-medicate with a constant stream of antibiotics. 

So how can you avoid meat contaminated with antibiotics?

Source your meat from a local farm or market that sources from farms using sustainable practices and, look for these labels when shopping:

More information on this subject:

The Pew Charitable Trusts  Here you will find numerous and very current studies and statistics on the use of antibiotics in food animal production, and it's affect on the health of humans and the earth.

Antibiotics and the Meat We Eat, New York Times