Erin Zammett Ruddy - Author. Writer. Blogger. Survivor.
  • The Truth About Antibiotics and the Meat We Eat—Read Before You Grocery Shop!

    March 20th, 2013
    The sidebar from the REDBOOK piece. See below for the whole story.

    The sidebar from the REDBOOK piece. See below for the whole story.

    Did you know that the cows, chicken and pigs we eat are routinely given our antibiotics to help them grow faster and to compensate for unsanitary conditions? Before you hit the supermarket, read this post. I promise I’m not being alarmist and there is something you can do!

    Last week, U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY) introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2013 (PAMTA). Under the bill, eight classes of antibiotics critical for curing infections in humans would be available for use on industrial farms only to treat sick animals. I spoke with Representative Slaughter (a super-cool woman and the only microbiologist in Congress) while I was reporting my antibiotic story for REDBOOK and I learned all about the antibiotic crisis we are facing—both in human medicine and in agriculture. Since I did so much reporting that ultimately got cut (that’s how it works in magazines), I thought I’d share some of the farm story here. Because it’s fascinating/appalling/enraging and because there’s something we as consumers and humans can do. The news of this bill being introduced is huge and I want to do whatever I can to help it gain momentum and get passed. Because, well, when it comes down to it superbugs scare the shit out of me (read about my ordeal with MRSA) and I would really, really like antibiotics to stick around and keep working. Call me crazy.

    So here’s the back story: According to nearly every respectable medical agency out there, there is a definitive link between the use of antibiotics in food animal production and the crisis of drug-resistant infections in humans. Every time we use an antibiotic—correctly or incorrectly—we chip away at its efficacy because the bacteria are given the chance to adapt and outsmart the medicine. They develop and share resistance so the next time the bacteria see the antibiotic, they’re not as susceptible. Meanwhile, all those resistant bacteria—which can be more virulent—are passed around the community. Each year, antibiotic-resistant infections are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and up to $26 billion in extra health care costs. Crazy, right? How about this: The FDA recently reported record-high sales of antibiotics for use on industrial farms in 2011 (29.9 million pounds); over 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States were intended for food animals.

    “If animals get sick with something antibiotics can fix, we should treat them,” says Gail Hansen, DVM, a D.C-based public health advocate who works with the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, a non-profit effort to save antibiotics. “What doesn’t compute is feeding them to animals just to get them to grow faster—to get chickens to market in 45 days instead of 49, for example—or to compensate for overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.” But that’s exactly what’s happening on our farms. In many cases the animals haven’t even been exposed to disease, they’re just given antibiotics as a preventative measure (on factory farms, chickens ingest small doses of antibiotics in their feed every day). “This would be like if your kids were going to daycare and you said ‘let’s give them some antibiotics just in case,’” says Hansen, who served as the chief epidemiologist and public health veterinarian for the state of Kansas for 12 years. “We would never conceive of that for people but it’s done routinely for animals.” And because these doses are so low, they do not kill the bacteria. Instead, they create the perfect environment for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to proliferate, bacteria that are then passed to humans in a number of unsavory ways.

    When you think superbug, MRSA probably comes to mind but there are many more out there. There’s even a resistant strain of e-coli causing hard-to-treat urinary tract infections. And when a UTI isn’t stopped by an antibiotic it can progress to a kidney infection and then to a blood infection, says Lance Price, Ph.D., a microbiologist and professor at The George Washington University who studies the sources and spread of antibiotic resistant bacterial diseases. Price and his colleagues traced the resistant bacteria back to poultry farms. “We noticed there were “outbreaks” of the resistant UTIs, much like you’d see with e-coli on ground turkey or spinach,” he says. “And we were able to link them back to resistant e-coli found in poultry.” (They believe women are getting the bacteria into their systems from either handling or eating infected meat.) I’m sorry, but that one just skeeves me out. Ick. “Why are we still doing this? I have no idea. I think it’s literally insane,” says Price. More insanity: Unlike with human medicine, most antibiotics on the farm are OTC—if a farmer wants to use them to speed up the growth of his animals or to prevent illness from the jam-packed, stressful conditions, he doesn’t need a prescription or a veterinarian, he just picks up the drugs at the feed store. Still, no one is doing anything illegal. These uses are FDA approved. But, says Hansen, they were OK’d 60 years ago when the only concern was that the antibiotics not be in the meat (producers are supposed to stop feeding antibiotics to animals at a certain point before they’re killed to give them time to excrete out all the antibiotics in their system). “That was long before anyone had a clue what it might be doing to the community of bacteria as a whole—and what it meant for human health.”

    But a lot of these farmers don’t even know they’re using antibiotics. “95 percent of the meat we get in this country has been contracted out by large food production companies,” says Hansen. That means cows may be raised on a family farm but a big company (think Tyson or Perdue) is dictating what and how they’re fed. In many cases, the antibiotics are already mixed into the feed that comes from the larger companies. “Even if the farmer knows about the antibiotics, he or she doesn’t have a choice,” says Hansen. “If they tell the contractor they’re not going to give the animals their feed, they won’t have a contract anymore.”  One of the reasons the industry will give in defense of this practice is the need to raise more product for less money to keep up with demand. But, says Hansen, there are ways to do that without antibiotics. “In the European Union non-therapeutic use of antibiotics is banned and they are raising animals just as intensively and just as efficiently as we are in this country,” she says. It would mean a little more space for the animals, better air circulation, possibly a different feed, watching them closely and keeping their premises clean and dry. (For pigs, specifically, it may mean weaning them from their mother’s milk a little later in life.) “I don’t want to negate the fact that there will be a cost to the farmer,” says Hansen. “Farmers work on very thin margins. We get that. But the increase in cost isn’t huge, particularly if the farmers pass it on the consumer, as they should.” The most recent data from the National Research Council suggests that it would cost a family of four between $4 and $10 more per year to have animals that were grown without the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. That’s nothing compared to the endless antibiotic co-pays if you get a resistant bug. Trust me.

    So why is it such a tough sell? Companies—and farmers—have been doing it like this for 50 or 60 years. “It’s hard to tell them, ‘Oops, this is no longer a good idea,’” says Hansen. The FDA has tried to place regulations on antibiotic use on farms over the years but they are continuously thwarted by Congress. “The science is strong but the agriculture lobby is stronger,” says says Margaret Mellon, a senior scientist with the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Folks in agriculture are not going to be told they cannot use drugs that they’ve used for years as part of their operation.” And they have the power to block legislation, even legislation that’s supported by almost every major medical organization out there. But now with PAMTA making its way around Congress, there is something we can do. Something you can do. Write to your members of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor the bill. Pew has an action alert that makes it easy. Take a look.  Hansen has heard farmers and industry insiders say that consumers aren’t asking for it so why should they change what they’re doing. “Consumers aren’t asking for it because they don’t know it’s an issue they should be concerned about!” she says. “Most people have no idea how much antibiotics are used in our food animals. Unless you grew up on a farm or work on one now, why would you know that?” Well, now you know.

    For more on what you can do as a consumer (e.g. only buying meat that says “raised without antibiotics” or getting your grocer to stock more options) check out Pew’s Campaign.  

    For more on human misuse of antibiotics (because we’re certainly not innocent here!), read my REDBOOK piece Antibiotics Are Not Candy.

    I realize this isn’t my usual light and lively blog post but I am absolutely obsessed with this topic and really wanted to share everything I’ve learned. Let me know if you have any questions!


1 responses to “The Truth About Antibiotics and the Meat We Eat—Read Before You Grocery Shop!” RSS icon

  • YES! Thank you, Erin, for sharing this. As the close of your post indicates, I’m a huge believer in voting at the register. Sure, antibiotic-free meat may cost more, but the more we demand it at the consumer level, the more likely it becomes that availability and accessibility will increase. Same deal with organic produce.

    I really appreciate your willingness to post your opinion outside of the “assignment” part of the story – it means a lot.

Leave a reply