Are Antibiotics in Meat a Food Safety Issue?

One important piece of information on some meat labels tells you something about its safety: whether or not antibiotics were part of the animals’ diet.

Antibiotics are routinely fed to a sizable percentage of food animals. In fact, over three-quarters of the most important antibiotics used in the United States are used not to cure human diseases, but in food animal production. What creates a serious problem is that many of the same antibiotics are used for animals and for people—drugs like penicillin, cephalosporin, and tetracycline. And few new antibiotics are being created these days, partly because they are not nearly as profitable for pharmaceutical companies as drugs that target long-term health issues.

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While it is appropriate for farmers and ranchers to use antibiotics to treat sick animals, other uses are risky. Antibiotics are fed to animals to speed growth and to prevent diseases that occur because of crowded living conditions. The drugs are usually given to entire herds or flocks in their feed, so the dosing is imprecise, and even healthy animals are routinely eating pharmaceuticals they don’t need. But administering low doses of antibiotics to animals day after day fosters the proliferation of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Bacteria that develop resistance to multiple antibiotics are called “superbugs.” If those pathogens cause illnesses in people, doctors might need to prescribe one antibiotic after another before they find one that works. In the meantime, the patients may get sicker or even die.

Given that, your best bet for protecting yourself is to look for a label that reads “USDA Organic” or “No antibiotics administered: USDA process verified. “ Those are the only two meat labels with assurance from the federal government that indicate that the animals were not given antibiotics (except possibly shortly after birth).

The next-best choice is to look for labels that say “Raised without antibiotics” or “American Grassfed Certified.” Those claims are not verified by the federal government, so you’re counting on the meat producer to be both knowledgeable and honest about what drugs the animal received during its life cycle.

Unfortunately, even buying meat with those labels provides only limited protection against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. First, resistant bacteria are in the general environment and could grow in animals not treated with antibiotics. Also, you could be infected by resistant bacteria by coming into contact with people who work on farms where antibiotics are used or by resistant bacteria lurking in hospitals, airplanes, and anywhere else. But keeping your own diet free from meat raised with antibiotics may reduce the chances that you—and everyone—will contract a hard-to-treat foodborne illness from a superbug.

Moreover, spending your money on meat raised without antibiotics sends a clear message to the food industry that many people don’t want to buy or eat meat from animals on drugs. Of course, the best solution of all would be for the Food and Drug Administration to ban non-therapeutic uses of medically important antibiotics in livestock. That agency has expressed concern about overuse of antibiotics in agriculture since 1977, but it simply hasn’t been able to overcome opposition from the drug industry.

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2 Replies to “Are Antibiotics in Meat a Food Safety Issue?”

  1. These animals won’t need antibiotics if they eat appropriately–grass in summer, hay in winter–and can roam outdoors in the daytime.

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