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

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.