According to a 2013 report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on antibiotic-resistant threats,1 antibiotics in the American food supply pose “a serious threat” to public health and “should be phased out.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also warned that we are headed for a “post-antibiotic era” where we will see common infections turning deadly.
Large scale meat production is a primary breeding ground of drug-resistant bacteria, as low doses of antibiotics are routinely fed to livestock to promote growth and compensate for unsanitary living conditions.
Previous research2 has suggested you have a 50/50 chance of buying meat tainted with drug-resistant bacteria when shopping at your local grocery store.
Fruits and vegetables can also become contaminated with antibiotics if the farmer a) uses manure from treated cows as crop fertilizer, or b) applies an antibiotic pesticide.
Glyphosate, for example, is actually patented as an antibiotic, and effectively kills soil bacteria needed for nutrient uptake and plant health. Antibiotics are also part of other pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides.
Besides promoting antibiotic resistance, antibiotic pesticides may also promote allergies. Researchers now claim to have identified the first case in which a serious allergic reaction was traced to a streptomycin-containing pesticide applied to blueberries.3, 4
After years of prodding, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally issued updated guidance on agricultural antibiotics on December 11, 2013.5 Alas, the agency stopped short of making an impact on the problem.
All they did was ask drug companies to voluntarily restrict the use of antibiotics that are important in human medicine by excluding “growth promotion in animals” as a listed use on the drug label.6
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has now stepped in, recently announcing a five-year plan to address antibiotic resistance.7 Unfortunately, this again simply reaffirms the US government’s unwillingness to put big business in the hot seat in order to protect human health.
White House Plan Continues Big Business Protection by Delaying Action
A five-year plan is simply too little, too late. We don’t have that kind of time to waste. For each year we delay affirmative action, tens of thousands of Americans die, and the resistance problem keeps growing unfettered… According to CDC statistics,8 two million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 of them die as a result of those infections.
One organism alone—methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)—already kills more Americans each year than the combined total of emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and homicide.9
As noted by Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY): “There are scientists who tell us that in 10 years strep throat could be fatal. I don’t believe we have five years to dilly dally around.”
Use of antibiotics in healthy livestock (and farmed fish) account for about 80 percent of all antibiotic use in the US,10 making it the primary driver of this modern scourge. According to a 2009 FDA report,11 factory farms used 29 million pounds of antibiotics that year alone.
A 2013 paper by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) titled “Antibiotic Resistance in Foodborne Pathogens,”12 report that between 1973 and 2011, there were 55 antibiotic-resistant foodborne outbreaks in the US. More than half of these outbreaks involved pathogens resistant to five or more antibiotics.
Truly, we are in the thick of a crisis already. We no longer have the luxury of time to sit back and ponder strategies. We need to cease the promulgation of drug resistance at the source, and that means putting an end to all non-essential and non-medical uses of antibiotics as soon as possible.
Resistance to multiple drugs appears to be an inevitability of continued misuse of antibiotics. For example, some penicillin-resistant bacteria have also developed resistance to cephalosporins13 — broad-spectrum antibiotics that are very important for the treatment of human infections.
One in 25 patients now end up with a hospital-acquired infection, and many of these infections are drug resistant. By continuing using antibiotics in agriculture, we allow simple infections to turn lethal, and make even minor routine surgeries very risky indeed.
There’s no getting around it—livestock owners must stop using antibiotics for non-medical purposes, but in order to do that, they have to come up with alternatives to keep their animals healthy.
This is very challenging under the current system. Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) maximize profits by raising as many animals as possible in the least amount of space. It’s impossible to do that and maintain top-notch sanitation and animal health.
Smaller farms operating according to organic standards can do this, however. A grass-fed cow does not need antibiotics or other veterinary drugs unless it develops an acute illness, and disease is far rarer when a cow is pastured, feeding on its natural diet (which is grass, not corn or soy), and getting fresh air, sunlight, and healthy bacteria from the environment.
This is one of the reasons why the only animal products I recommend eating are organic, grass-fed (pastured) varieties. However, some food producers are starting to investigate other options, proving that there are healthier alternatives that can work even in large scale meat production.
Perdue Cuts Down on Antibiotics by Adding Probiotics
One such example is Perdue Farms—one of the largest chicken producers in the US. As reported by NPR14 and Time Magazine,15 Perdue is cutting down on antibiotic use in their chicken farms by adding probiotics to the chickens’ feed instead.
Over the past five years, Perdue has increased the amount of probiotics in their chicken feed by five times. The company is now vowing to restrict use of antibiotics to sick chickens only, leaving the vast majority, about 95 percent, to be raised without antibiotics. As reported by NPR:
“According to [Bruce] Stewart-Brown [an executive at Perdue Farms]… [t]he idea is, all these ‘good bacteria’ can crowd out the harmful microbes that make a chicken sick.
Stewart-Brown says that he was initially skeptical about probiotics. ‘Eight years ago, I would have said that they’re not working in poultry… Today, I’m saying that they are useful….’ Chickens that got probiotics stayed healthier and grew faster than birds that didn’t. He declined to say exactly what products the company is using, but some poultry probiotics include live Enterococcus, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium microorganisms.” [Emphasis mine]
Perdue chickens are still being raised in large-scale factory farm conditions, which can hardly be considered humane,16 and this comes across as more of a publicity stunt than an actual awakening to the widespread damage CAFO’s have caused. NPR also reports that Perdue is now vaccinating its chickens against a wider array of diseases. This, in my opinion, is simply replacing one hazard with another, and is yet another reason for opting for organically raised, pastured chicken.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, despite industries’ promises to voluntarily cut down on the use of antibiotics, the use of them continues to rise.17, 18 A recent FDA report19 shows the amount of antibiotics sold for use in livestock grew by 16 percent from 2009 to 2012. Of the total antibiotics sold, the FDA estimates 61 percent were ones that are important for the treatment of human disease. So it seems we can expect industry to keep saying the right thing while acting the opposite…
How to Find Organic Foods Locally
Your best bet for finding healthy food is to connect with a local farmer that raises animals according to organic standards, allowing them to roam freely on pasture. In the US, the following organizations can also help you locate farm-fresh foods:
|Weston Price Foundation20 has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.|
|Local Harvest — This Web site will help you find farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.|
|Farmers’ Markets — A national listing of farmers’ markets.|
|Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals — The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.|
|Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) — CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.|
|FoodRoutes — The FoodRoutes “Find Good Food” map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.|
Avoiding Antibiotics in Your Food Is an Important Safety Aspect
The US government has made it clear that they are not taking antibiotic resistance seriously enough. They talk about it, to make it appear as though they’re paying attention, but still there’s no action. Despite evidence showing that agricultural antibiotics are a driving factor that could end up killing people coming down with a minor infection, very little is actually being done to curtail the situation. Food producers are also dragging their feet, despite mounting evidence that they are promoting a massive health care crisis.
My suggestion to you is: don’t wait for CAFOs to voluntarily do the right thing. Don’t wait for the government to implement an action agenda. Instead, take decisive action for yourself and your own family. Seek out trusted sources of food that do not use antibiotic pesticides and/or antibiotic growth promoters.
Many small farmers use organic principles even if they have not been able to afford organic certification, so your local farmer is a good place to start. Some grocery chains also offer 100% grass-fed meats these days. If not, ask them to start carrying it. I’ve also made connections with sources I know provide high-quality organic grass-fed beef and free-range chicken, both of which you can find in my online store.
I believe the strongest message you can send is to change how you spend your food dollars. By opting for antibiotic-free, pasture raised and finished meats, you’re actively supporting farmers who are not contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistance.