Antibiotics in Meat

Is it worth paying more for meat raised without antibiotics?

Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N
6-minute read
Episode #52

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.