Industrial Meat Production and the Rise of Superbugs

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Antibiotic resistance looms as an immediate public health threat. It’s easy to forget that prior to modern medical care and prescriptions, common illnesses often proved deadly. We might be in for a bitter blast from the past thanks to the recent proliferation of bacterial infections impervious to the antibiotics solutions we routinely over use.

In Making the World Safe from Superbugs, the final installment of Consumer Reports Magazine’s three part series on antibiotics in America, researchers zero in on the major role that industrial meat production plays in the rise of superbugs and antibiotic resistance.

For those unfamiliar with antibiotic resistance, the concept is disturbingly straightforward:  When an antibiotic is administered to combat an infection, it often kills all but the strongest members of a bacterial community. This newfound breathing room enables the hardy strain to multiply with reckless abandon. When this process results in the development of a bacteria resistant to one or more of the antibiotics designed to treat it, a superbug is born.

Consumer Reports explains how industrial meat production helps foster the development and dissemination of superbugs:

  • About 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are given to animals raised for food.
  • The FDA calculated a 17 percent increase in the amount of antibiotics sold for animal use from 2009 to 2013.
  • In studies of beef, shrimp, turkey and chicken, Consumer Reports found higher rates of superbug contamination in samples from conventionally raised animals than in those raised sustainably.
  • 20 percent of antibiotic resistant infections are caused by contaminated food.
  • In addition to meat itself, industrial meat production can introduce superbugs into the outside world through soil, wind, water, farm workers and flies.

What’s With All the Antibiotics?

The routine incorporation of antibiotics into animal feed began after the late 1940s discovery that regular antibiotic consumption makes animals grow larger, faster. In the factory farms we see (or look away from) today, this profit-boosting strategy has become a logistical necessity. Animals are crowded together in unsanitary conditions (often living in their own excrement), thus creating a fertile ground for infections to develop and spread.

While all routine use of antibiotics has the potential to foster superbugs, the use of antibiotics similar to those used in human medicine are by far the most threatening. Consumer Reports explains that according to a set of voluntary guidelines from the FDA, veterinary approval will be necessary for the use of antibiotics important to human medicine starting in 2016. However, these guidelines are shadowed by a loophole so giant it renders them essentially ineffective: Companies can simply say that the antibiotics are used to prevent disease and they’ll be free to continue using them.

Where Do We Go From Here?

There are plenty of ways to take direct action. Write to the many companies who are doing little to improve the situation (many are listed in the special report). Contact your local grocer and request better options because your choices matter! Industrially-produced meat from livestock, poultry and farmed seafood treated with antibiotics is only profitable as long as it has a market. Consumer Reports recommends choosing meat labeled ‘organic’ or ‘no antibiotics administered’.

Check out our Eat Well Guide to find responsibly produced local meat and to stay up to date on what food labels mean.