Monday, April 14, 2014

Meat and Antibiotic Combo, Please

Antibiotics are well-known products that help treat bacterial infections in animals and humans.  They have been considered live savers for a long period of time and have helped to cure many diseases that were once considered fatal.  However, many doctors advise that individuals do not overuse this type of medication because bacteria can easily become resistant.

Even though the above information is available, it has been estimated that approximately 70% of the antibiotics produced in the United States are used for livestock.  The animals are forced to ingest the excessive medication because it is believed to enhance growth, promote feed efficiency and prevent diseases and infections.  This is becoming an issue because the extensive use is causing mutations of many bacteria.  These microbes are antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”  Once the microbes leave the bodies of the affected cows, pigs, chickens, etc., they enter groundwater, compost and fertilizers.  The result is the contamination of meat, water and other non-meat foods.  Many human infections and diseases are occurring.  The most common disease is Salmonella, associated with poultry, which can result in hospitalizations and very low treatment success.  The bacterium that causes the infection is resistant to animal and human antibiotics.
The misuse of antibiotics is common not only in America, but also around the world.  For example, China also uses these products as a way to increase the size of livestock.  The issue here is that many of the superbugs are present in groundwater and compost, and are being linked to high rates of human infections.  Furthermore, antibiotic-resistance is more of a problem here because China uses four times as much as the United States for livestock alone.  Another example is the outbreak of poultry-related human infections in Germany.  At one point, 96% of the meat birds were being fed antibiotics, even if they were healthy, to prevent future diseases.  This has caused the formation of resistant bacteria in many regions, specifically extended-spectrum beta-lactamase.  ESBL is considered a superbug, which is introduced to humans via drinking water or contaminated vegetables.  Many of the farmers around the world intend to continue using the antibiotics, but only because they fear losing a large number to illness that may be easily prevented.  But what they do not understand is that they are only causing more possible infections by continuing the use of unnecessary medications.

There has to be something to look forward to, right?  Well, if you have ever eaten at Chipotle, I am sure you have heard or read the slogan “Food with Integrity.”  What this means is that their animal products are free of antibiotics and growth hormones.  The chain made the switch nearly a decade ago when they realized pork sales had dropped.  Not only customers noticed this change, but so did other food providers; Hyatt Hotels, Bon Appetit Management Co. and even Wal-Mart are offering the option of antibiotic-free meats.  This is good news because consumers have an opportunity to choose safer, healthier products.  It has also increased the demand for farmers who refrain from feeding their animals unnecessary medications.

Many individuals are hopeful of this current movement away from antibiotic use in livestock.  The Food and Drug Administration is currently working on a voluntary relabeling program for drug companies.  Some of the current and most previous antibiotic labels indicated that these products promote growth and feed efficiency.  This is a problem because most of the animals are not sick but are still being fed these medications.  One company has already changed the description to “"only for therapeutic purposes of treating, controlling and preventing diseases…”  The FDA requests that antibiotics are only used for sick animals, under the care and supervision of a veterinarian, and by prescription only.  With the decreased abuse of medications, superbugs and other resistant bacteria will correspondingly decline.  If we follow this path, the future should offer healthier animals and humans.


  1. I would edit "extensive use is causing mutations of many bacteria" to "extensive use is selecting for bacteria with antibiotic-resistance mutations."

    I looked for data that would help me to see trends in ABR related to livestock. Here is a resource whose summary tables suggest more increases than decreases in ABR bacterial strains in recent years. I am not sure of the practical implications of different methods (a good question for one of our microbiology faculty!).

  2. Hi, this is a very interesting piece. I like the picture with the caption "food with integrity". Now, me and my professor in BGSU are working on the project about corporate environmental issues. We are wondering if you allow us to add this picture in the book chapter that we are working on. Can we discuss about this? Thank you very much!