Intensively farmed livestock are raised in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions where emphasis is placed on productivity rather than animal welfare and quality of product.
These conditions often give rise to disease in the animals so they are routinely given antibiotic feed to prevent infection, even if it is not medically indicated. Penicillin and tetracycline is added to the feed as a precaution.
Some animals are given the antibiotic cocktail to promote growth so that more meat can be obtained after slaughter. These feed additives remain in the tissue of the animals and so are residually present in the meat that is then sold in supermarkets to unsuspecting members of public.
While the meat industry may play down the risk of residual medications in their meat, the issue is a serious one. Eating antibiotic laced meat contributes to antibiotic resistance and superbugs and may expose people to drug resistant bacteria that has originated from livestock facilities and even put human medical treatments at risk.
Of 30 feed additives tested by the FDA, 18 were found to be high risk to humans. For the other samples, they didn’t have enough data to determine their safety so information about their long-term effects on meat consumers is lacking. The FDA found in their own review that 26 of the feed additives they studied would not have passed their own safety testing as far back as 1973.
Despite suggesting the removal of antibiotic additives from animal feed, the FDA has done nothing to enforce this and many of the additives are still being marketed and sold by drug companies. Only two companies voluntarily offered to withdraw their feed additives so the public are faced with inaction by the regulatory agency that they have entrusted to ensure their food is safe and are still at risk from antibiotic contaminated meat.
The Natural Resources Defense Council thinks that the FDA should limit antibiotic usage to sick animals or in the event of a disease outbreak.
Antibiotic residues affect everyone
It isn’t just meat that antibiotic residues affect. Even vegetarians may consume fruit and vegetables with the same residues because antibiotic resistant bacteria from livestock farms can travel off the farm via the people that work there.
It can also migrate through air and water and infect soil that crops are being grown in, which is why abstaining from meat consumption will not address the issue as all foods grown near to the intensive or non-organic facility may be affected.
Implications for Public Health
Evolving resistant bacteria has huge public health implications. Antibiotics were the miracle drug of the 20 century. Their discovery saved children from dying of pneumonia and turned dreaded infections into minor ailments that were simple to treat, but drug overuse has led to immune system tolerance and mutating bacteria that have adapted to outsmart antibiotics.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there have been 2,049,442 illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the US due to antibiotic resistance. Those most at risk are:
· People with cancer and those undergoing chemotherapy. Chemotherapy destroys white blood cells that fight infection so they may acquire bacterial illnesses that need antibiotic treatment
· People with inflammatory arthritis – medications to control this auto-immune disease also lower immune function
· People with joint replacement surgeries or a history of other complicated surgery – artificial joints are vulnerable to infection and an infected prosthetic usually means that the patient will have to have further surgery to remove the infected joint.
· People with renal disease – anyone that has to have dialysis has an increased risk of a bloodstream infection so effective antibiotics are vital
· People with transplanted organs – anyone that has had an organ transplant has to take anti-rejection drugs to prevent their body rejecting the new organ and this means their immune system will be suppressed.
Nearly All Chicken Breasts Contaminated
The problem is so bad that of over 300 chicken breasts bought at US stores and tested, 97% contained harmful bacteria such as E.coli and enterococcus. 11% of the samples tested contained antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Going organic may decrease the risk of pesticides, but might not help consumers avoid antibiotic residues. 24 organic samples were found to be contaminated. Considering the sample was fairly small and only involved one type of meat, the results probably represented the tip of the ice burg.
So if going organic doesn’t guarantee safety, what can be done to tackle the problem? The first responsibility lies with the regulatory authorities of the particular country. If they find that a product isn’t safe, it should be withdrawn without waiting for voluntary agreement from the manufacturing company.
Secondly, meat industries should take their animals off unnecessary medications and prevent veterinarians from making a profit from selling drugs to farmers and the public should vote with their feet and insist on buying food with high welfare standards that has been subject to stricter surveillance.
Denmark has already taken the lead and banned antibiotic feed additives in their pigs to promote growth. Rather than destroying the pork industry, there has been a 50% rise in productivity. Going back to basics may be the only way to halt this human caused catastrophe.
- Jenni Cathcart worked in the health industry for 15 years before taking a step back to raise her children and take up her dream as a freelance writer. When not writing, she loves being taken for walks by her Labradors.