That factory farm animals are routinely administered antibiotics to make them grow faster and prevent them from getting sick in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions isn’t news. An estimated 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used on animals, and this is contributing to a national public health crisis of antibiotic resistance among humans.
Superbugs — bacteria that are immune to one or more antibiotics — are on the rise, as Consumer Reports explains in its new “Meat on Drugs” report, with more than 18,000 deaths attributed to infection by one strain of superbug alone in 2005, for example. In 2011, 36 million pounds of ground turkey were recalled due to contamination with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella.
According to the “Meat on Drugs” report, in 2010 the FDA said, “In light of the risk that antimicrobial resistance poses to public health, FDA believes that the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food producing animals for production purposes… represents an injudicious use of these important drugs.”
“Injudicious” is a meek and bureaucratic way of describing the problem, and the only substantive action the FDA has taken so far is to call on pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily stop selling antibiotics as growth-promoters. In 1995, the pharmaceutical industry made $3.3 billion in sales of animal health products to farms, so why would they comply of their own volition?
Likewise, the meat and poultry industries see no benefit in discontinuing a practice that allows them to produce a lot of meat cheaply and quickly. So, as Consumer Reports suggests, it falls to consumers to recognize the public health crisis at hand and take action to address it. For one thing, they can stop buying meat produced with antibiotics.
In a nationwide poll conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 86% of consumers said they thought that meat raised without antibiotics should be available in their local supermarket. Of the 24% who said that meat raised without antibiotics was not available at their usual supermarket, 82% said they would buy it if it were. The majority of respondents reported being extremely or very concerned about issues related to the use of antibiotics in meat production. So how can consumers be sure that the meat they’re buying was raised without any antibiotics?
Consumer Reports found that labels on meats related to antibiotic use were largely useful, notwithstanding the wide variety of them. “Never ever given antibiotics,” “humanely raised without antibiotics,” “grown without antibiotics” and “raised without added antibiotics” are among the labels consumers can safely take to mean what they say. “Organic” and “no antibiotics administered / USDA process verified,” moreover, are guarantees that the meat was not produced with antibiotics. “Natural” and “Antibiotic Free,” however, are far less reliable in this regard and in fact suggest that the animal was given antibiotics.
Risk to public health notwithstanding, why would anyone choose to eat meat from animals raised on drugs over meat from animals with no history of drugs in their system? Consumer Reports even found their prices to be comparable. Given the political circumstances, a ban on the use of antibiotics in meat production is hardly forthcoming, but at least consumers have a choice. And the choices we make with our fork can change the way the system works.
Photo Credit: SpecialKRB