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

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.


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Have a great day and eat something good for me!


The House Call Doctor’s show on antibiotics

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)

U.S. Rep. Slaughter Introduces Bill to Curb Excessive Use of Antibiotics (press release)

How to contact your legislators

Deli Meat image courtesy of Shutterstock