Is The US Meat Industry Pushing Us Into A ‘Post-Antibiotic Era’?

Lauren Rothman | Munchies | October 24, 2014

The meat industry in this country is a total disaster. Marred by constant concern over food safety that’s accompanied by massive recalls, factory farms and slaughterhouses consistently hide their shady doings behind so-called “ag-gag laws” that effectively make it impossible to photograph or videotape what happens behind producers’ gates.

Big Meat’s rampant use of antibiotics is one of the most worrying aspects of the meat industry, an issue that unites public health advocates, doctors, consumers, and others in shared concern. The drugs, which are administered to healthy animals through their food and water to get cows, pigs, and chickens to grow faster, are the very same ones used to treat infections in people, and that’s a dangerous notion: Such constant, low-level use in animals kills off the weak bacteria in the animal population, leaving behind a group of surviving bacteria that are actually extra-resistant to antibiotics. People can come into contact with these dangerous bacteria by eating meat, but about 75 percent of administered antibiotics aren’t absorbed by the animal. Instead, they end up in its manure, and those who eat vegetables from fields fertilized with that manure are in danger of exposure, too. The real danger begins with an infection; treating the extra-hardy bacteria with standard antibiotics can be difficult because the bacteria are already used to them.

Though such off-label use of the drugs has been criticized for decades—it began rousing concern in the scientific community just a few years after farmers’ 1950 discovery that adding antibiotics to livestock feed helped animals pack on the pounds but cost less than traditional feed supplements—the practice continues to become more and more common. In a massive report issued earlier this month, authors at the FDA demonstrated a 16 percent rise in the sales of livestock antibiotics between 2009 and 2012...