4 things to know about antibiotic resistance and meat
With the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention naming antibiotic resistance as one of the nation’s top health threats, and major chains restaurants like Chipotle, Subway and Panera eliminating the use of antibiotics in the meat they serve, antibiotic-free meat has been recently making headlines.
Antibiotics are medications used to kill bacteria that cause illnesses such as pneumonia, and help a person feel better. However, over time, some bacteria can become resistant to the effects of these drugs. This can make certain illnesses harder to treat or require doctors to use less effective, more expensive or more toxic medications to treat them.
“To some extent, antibiotic resistance is inevitable,” says Dr. James Malow, infection prevention specialist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. “We need to use antibiotics to combat infections. However, inappropriate use of these drugs — such as the use of antibiotics in farming — can set us up for some serious problems.”
Here’s what you need to know about antibiotic resistance and food:
- Antibiotic resistance can lead to serious illnesses and even death. According to the CDC, antibiotic resistance causes more than 2 million illnesses and at least 23,000 deaths each year.
- Many industrial farms give antibiotics to their animals to help them grow faster or to make them gain weight with less food. As many as 70 percent of antibiotics used to treat humans are given to farm animals, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts Antibiotic Resistance Project. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that antibiotics are only used for food-producing animals under the supervision of a veterinarian to address health problems, not to promote growth.
- Considerably more antibiotics are used for meat production than are actually given to people with illnesses. In 2011, nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics were sold to farms, while only 7.7 million pounds were sold to health organizations in the U.S. to treat patients, according to Pew.
- These drugs end up developing resistant bacteria within the animals, which, in turn, affects humans. This can happen in two ways, according to the CDC. First, fertilizer containing animal feces and drug-resistant bacteria is used on food crops, which are eventually eaten by humans. Second, antibiotic-resistant bacteria ends up in the meat people purchase, and, when it’s not cooked properly, it can spread to humans.
“Eliminating unnecessary antibiotic use in agriculture is vital to protecting our ability to continue to treat a wide range of diseases, from urinary tract infections to strep throat to pneumonia,” says Dr. Malow. “One thing we can do to help is start purchasing antibiotic-free meats from grocery stores and restaurants.”
Advocate Health Care, the largest hospital system in Illinois, is now offering meat raised without antibiotics on its patient menus and is also available in the hospital cafeterias, Dr. Malow says.
“We hope this signals to our staff, patients and visitors that we are committed to this movement toward creating a healthier environment for everyone,” he adds. “Ultimately, as a nation, we are trending toward decreasing the inappropriate use of antibiotics in agriculture, but we certainly need to move quickly. This is a major public health issue that needs to be fixed.”
About the Author
health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.