Antibiotics in meat: A public health controversy that isn’t going away

June 3, 2015, 3:47 PM UTC
Food and Farm Livestock Antibiotics
Cattle that are grass-fed, antibiotic and growth hormone free gather at Kookoolan Farm in Yamhill, Ore., Thursday, April 23, 2015. Oregon legislators are debating whether to curtail the practice over concern that repeated use of the antibiotics could make germs more resistant to the drugs and result in infections being passed on to humans who consume the meat. If the legislation passes, Oregon would be the first in the nation to mandate stricter rules on livestock antibiotics.(AP Photo/Don Ryan)
Photograph by Don Ryan — AP

A recent study by the Food and Drug Administration has renewed the controversy over antibiotic use in food producing animals. According to the FDA report released in April, sales of antibiotics used in beef, pork and poultry increased 20% between 2009 and 2013. And there was a 3% increase from 2012 to 2013. The worry is that overuse of antibiotics in animals helps contribute to deadly drug resistant bacteria that can be passed on to humans.

According to FDA data, about 80% of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are for livestock. But more food outlets are pledging to reduce or do away with antibiotic use in animals. Last year, Panera Breads said it would cut back on giving its pork supply antibiotics. The restaurant has used antibiotic-free chicken since 2004. Perdue Foods also said in 2014 that it would no longer use human antibiotics in its chicken hatcheries. Five years ago, Perdue used human antibiotics in all of its chickens. The company has said that it has stopped feeding the drugs to animals to make them grow faster, and it now uses them only to treat or control disease.

This past March, McDonald’s said it agreed to phase out the routine use of antibiotics in its chicken. Tyson, the nation’s biggest chicken producer and supplier of McNuggets, promised in April of this year to stop feeding its chicken antibiotics used in humans. For years, restaurant chain Chipotle has said it voluntarily cut back on serving meat from animals given human antibiotics.

Meanwhile, the White House said on Tuesday it will request federal agencies to begin purchasing meat that is produced with “responsible antibiotic-use.” Earlier in the week, California based poultry giant Foster Farms said it would stop using all antibiotics in its chickens that are used to combat infection in humans.

So why have sales of antibiotics in meat climbed? “A lot of these announcements came in either late 2013 or in 2014, so we don’t really expect to see that reflected in the data we’re looking at right now,” Gail Hansen, a senior officer for Pew Charitable Trusts’ antibiotic resistance project, told Reuters. “At some point, though, we should be seeing a decrease.” Meat industry analysts –including the North American Meat Industry– say they weren’t sure why sales climbed in the FDA’s data. It could be because food producing animal herds are growing in numbers or due to actual diseases. (The FDA report didn’t speculate on the reasons, and a spokesperson said it would not comment beyond the report.) However, experts point out there’s a difference between sales and actual usage of the antibiotics—though that may be splitting hairs and some media reports didn’t quite see the distinction.

The FDA says it’s working hard to limit the antibiotics used in animals. In May, it proposed a new rule to seek specific sale and distribution figures on antibiotics by animal species, in order to keep track of which animals might be getting antibiotics. Currently, the FDA collects information on drug sales for agricultural purposes from drug makers– but they are not required to submit sales or distribution data by particular species.

More to the point, in 2016, a new FDA policy will force veterinarians and not farmers, to decide whenever antibiotics used by people are given to animals. “We take this issue of antibiotic use in animals very seriously,” said Dr. Mike Apley, a veterinarian and a member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “The goal is not to use antibiotics unless we need to.”

But that goal should be met sooner than later, said Felicia Wu, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Michigan State University. “There’s an urgent need to develop alternative methods to combat bacteria and enhance animal growth in agricultural production without the use, or with much lower use, of antibiotics,” she said.

Farmers, growers and ranchers have used certain antibiotics in the food supply of animals for decades. And only a few antibiotics are used in both animals and humans. One reason is preventive medicine to keep the animals healthy and avoid any kind of disease or sickness in the first place.

But they’re also used for non-medical reasons—specifically to make cattle, pigs and chickens heavier and more cost effective for a producers’ bottom line, said Eric Kades, a professor at William and Mary law school and who has written about the topic. Make the animals fatter and they’ll produce more food while increasing income, he said.

And as more and more antibiotics are used in humans and animals, there’s a greater chance for bacteria to become resistant in both. The worry is that antibiotic resistance is moving from the bacteria in food producing animals to bacteria that infect people.

At least one report states that germs from humans are passed on to animals, where they become drug resistant and then are passed back to humans. Public health officials already are urging for the reduction of antibiotic use, due to rising fears of anti-drug resistance from the deadly superbugs that kill about 23,000 people in the U.S. each year.

Meat industry executives, meanwhile, say antibiotics in animals are long gone before reaching humans. Eric Mittenthal, vice president of public affairs for the North American Meat Institute, said there is significant withdrawal time between when an animal gets an antibiotic and when that animal is processed. He said animals are tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ensuring that nearly 99 percent of them tested free of antibiotics.

But it’s not enough to have animals cleared of antibiotics before processing, said cardiologist Dr. Jack Wolfson. He argued the antibiotics in animals can enter the nation’s water system through urination and not filtered out at most treatment facilities.

Mark Koba is a freelance journalist living in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter at @mkoba1234

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