Antibiotics in Meat
Is it worth paying more for meat raised without antibiotics?
Sara asked me to do a show about hormones and antibiotics in meat. She’s wondering whether it’s worth spending the extra money to avoid them. Although antibiotics and hormones are usually mentioned in the same breath, they are really two different issues. I’ll tackle antibiotics this week and in a couple of weeks, I’ll circle back and talk about the use of hormones in livestock.
Why Are Antibiotics Used in Livestock?
In fact, Sara, I think that the use of antibiotics in our livestock is a big problem for all of us, no matter what kind of meat we buy or even if we choose not to eat meat at all.
As in people, antibiotics are used to treat sick animals. But, in the U.S., most livestock are also given low doses of antibiotics throughout their entire lives--sort of the way many people take vitamins. Putting antibiotics in the feed helps make the animals grow bigger, faster.
For one thing, it allows farmers to feed the animals a rich diet which they might not otherwise be able to tolerate. A steady diet of antibiotics also helps keep the animals from succumbing to disease due to the extremely over-crowded and unsanitary conditions in which they are raised.
Growing more animals, bigger and faster, increases profits and, to some extent, keeps costs at the grocery store down. So what’s the problem? The problem is that antibiotics are not vitamins. They are drugs that we depend on to fight infections that would otherwise kill millions of people every year.
The Antibiotic Miracle
You have to remember just how big a deal the discovery of antibiotics was. It was a staggering leap forward. Overnight, we added eight years to the human life expectancy by turning once deadly infections, like the ones that cause pneumonia, tuberculosis, strep throat, and staph infections, into treatable illnesses. Unfortunately, we are slowly but surely blunting the sharpest weapon in the entire medical arsenal.
Dr. Rob Lamberts (aka the House Call Doctor) explains exactly how overusing antibiotics helps bacteria become resistant and more dangerous in his show this week. (Dr. Lamberts is the newest addition to the Quick and Dirty Tips family and you’ll find his show on iTunes.)
But the bottom line is that the way we are using antibiotics in livestock--constantly and in low doses--is the most efficient way to breed harmful bacteria that are resistant to those antibiotics. We’re encouraging bacteria to develop immunity to our some of strongest, last-resort drugs.
If we’re not careful, we’re going to be back at square one, with millions of children and people in the prime of their lives dying from simple bacterial infections--because we no longer have antibiotics that can treat them. We also won’t have drugs to treat animals when they get sick.
Am I Overreacting?
So, just how present a danger are we talking about here? How likely are you to be infected by drug-resistant bacteria? An estimated two million people get bacterial infections each year in the U.S. That’s about one in every 150 people. Seventy percent of those infections are caused by drug-resistant bacteria. And those numbers are rising. Recently, you may have heard about a drug-resistant staph infection called MRSA, which is running rampant in hospitals and day care centers.
There’s no doubt that we’ve got a problem on our hands and that that antibiotic overuse--in humans as well as animals--is the culprit. The medical profession is taking this seriously and is cracking down on inappropriate use of antibiotics. But 70% of all antibiotics are not used in humans; they’re used in livestock.
As the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2003, a decrease in antibiotic use in humans alone “will have little effect…Substantial efforts must be made to decrease inappropriate overuse in animals and agriculture as well.” Obviously, we can’t get a handle on this situation without the cooperation of animal growers.
If you are listening from the European Union, you may now assume an attitude of superiority because the EU has banned the use of antibiotics in livestock, except to treat illness. However, your smugness doesn’t protect you from our folly, as our drug-resistant bugs are only a plane ride away from you.
Who Stands To Lose?
And, unfortunately, efforts to regulate the use of antibiotics in livestock here in the U.S. have met with enormous resistance. Just consider what the pharmaceutical companies have at stake here. Seventy percent of antibiotics are used in animals. Outlawing the routine use of antibiotics in healthy animals would slash pharmaceutical sales and profits overnight.
The meat growers are also not crazy about the idea. Antibiotics make their jobs easier. They can stuff more animals into less space, feed them cheaper food, and they don’t have to keep things particularly clean.
Pharmaceutical reps and meat growers argue that it’s never been definitely proven that antibiotic use in animals has or will lead to problems for humans. I guess it depends on what you mean by “definitive proof.” A growing consensus of scientists believes that if it’s not already a threat, it is only a matter of time--and that it would be extremely unwise to wait for further proof before taking action.
The Costs and Benefits of Banning Antibiotics
Now, I realize that sounds like the same sort of logic that sent the U.S. into Iraq eight years ago. Then-President Bush argued that we didn’t want to find out for sure that Saddam Hussein had atomic weapons when we saw the mushroom cloud. And we all know how that turned out.
But let’s look at the costs and benefits of a preemptive strike against resistant bacteria. The potential benefits include maintaining the potency and viability of antibiotics to treat serious, life-threatening diseases in humans and animals.
The costs? Well, growers claim that restricting antibiotics will raise meat prices to the consumer. However, experts estimate that banning the use of antibiotics in healthy animals would only increase costs to the consumer by $5-10 per person, per year.
Personally, I’d be willing to ante up a quarter a week to lower my risk of contracting a bacterial infection that can’t be treated by any antibiotic. It also wouldn’t break my heart if restricting the use of antibiotics in livestock meant that the animals we raise for food would have to be given healthier food and cleaner and more spacious quarters.
Putting the Genie Back In the Bottle
What if we did stop using antibiotics? Isn’t it already too late? Not at all. Since the EU banned non-therapeutic use of antiobiotics in livestock, they have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of drug-resistant bugs and infections.
In other words, we can still stuff this genie at least part of the way back into his bottle. To that end, U.S. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (who represents my hometown of Buffalo, NY, by the way) proposed a bill in March to limit non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in meat production. Sen. Edward Kennedy has proposed similar legislation in the Senate. The bills have yet to get out of committee.
What Can You Do?
So, what can you do about this? Two things: First, you can buy antibiotic-free meat.
That doesn’t protect you against drug-resistant bacteria, of course. But I still think it’s worth the extra expense.
For one thing, it sends a message that consumers are willing to pay more for meat produced without antibiotics. Also, it helps support the farmers who opt out of the conventional system, and that reduces antibiotic use. Any meat that is certified organic has been raised without antibiotics. Some growers who have not pursued organic certification also raise their animals without antibiotics and label them accordingly.
The second, and perhaps more important, thing you can do is contact your legislators and ask them to support these bills. I’ll include links for contacting your lawmakers in this week’s show notes at the bottom of the page. I also have posted links to more detailed information about both sides of the argument on antibiotic use in industrial agriculture as well as to the House Call Doctor’s episode on antibiotics use in people.
To find out how you can support the local foods movement and locate a farmers' market near you, please click here.
Have a great day and eat something good for me!
Non-therapeutic Use of Antibiotics in Animal Agriculture (Center for Global Development)
Antibiotic Debate Overview (PBS/Frontline. Includes numerous links to government reports, rebuttals from meat growers organizations, and advocacy groups)
Limiting non-therapeutic antibiotics in meat (U.S. Food Policy Blog)