32 million pounds. That's the astounding approximate weight of the antibiotics that the U.S. uses annually in farm animals, according to Dr. Lance Price, Director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington's Milken Institute School of Public Health. Last Friday, I had the privilege of attending the Annual Harvard Law School - UCLA Food Law and Policy Conference, where outstanding speakers such as Dr. Price presented on law and policy of antibiotics in the food system. They discussed the current practices of broad-spectrum antibiotic usage for animal disease treatment, for "prophylactic" treatment, and for growth promotion.
Since their discovery, antibiotics have saved countless human lives and farm animal lives. With their powerful curative effects, there is general agreement that the use of antibiotics for the treatment of disease in farm animals is a positive humane and cost-effective practice. However, it is common practice for farm animals to receive antibiotics prophylactically in conditions where the animal might contract bacterial illness. For the majority of U.S. farming, with animals' cramped conditions atop their own feces, bacterial infection is indeed probable; without improvements in confinement and crowding, antibiotic use under this permissible "prophylaxis" will surely further the abundant usage of antibiotics in our food system. Additionally, noted Dr. Price, the feed used to fatten the animals compared to grass-fed animals often causes fatty liver disease in the animals, wherein antibiotics are necessary for the treatment of liver abscesses; poor production conditions further the overuse of antibiotics to treat their medical consequences.
Additionally, and even more controversially, antibiotics are used for growth promotion, referred to as "subtherapeutic use". According to Dr. Martin Blaser, Director of the NYU Microbiome Project and author of the exceptional book Missing Microbes, "an estimated 70-80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used for the single purpose of fattening up farm animals." Inexpensively and efficiently, farm animals gain 5-15% body weight (predominately in fat tissue, see below) through non-therapeutic use of antibiotics.
As a dietitian interested in food, disease, and the gut microbiome, antibiotics' effects are an important and urgent concern for clinicians like me and, because of their personal health and societal impacts, should be known to consumers like YOU. I want to share with you 3 Reasons You Should Choose "No Antibiotics Administered" Meat:
1. The practices of subtherapeutic and prophylactic antibiotic treatments are causing the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs". Tom Frieden, Director of the CDC, notes that we are at "The End of the Antibiotic Era". (As one of his Twitter followers, he is constantly asserting the concerns of overuse of antibiotics.) The CDC ranks antibiotic resistance as the #1 global health threat. But it's not just humans overusing antibiotics--"superbugs" are developing to adapt to animals' drugs. Blaser writes in Missing Microbes that over 50% of ground turkey and beef and pork chops from supermarkets in 2011 contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is a serious, widespread problem!
2. Antibiotics are fattening our animals (and us too). I already mentioned that 70-80% of antibiotic use in the U.S. is to promote growth in farm animals. Generally, growth promotion is a desirable aim; bigger animals yield more food, to feed more people, for less money. Sounds great! But what happens to the animal which grows up to 15% bigger with antibiotics? Sure, it gets bigger--taller, longer, more muscular. But mostly, it gets fatter. The shift in body composition to being higher in fat doesn't just change our meat quality, too. It gives animals liver damage, sometimes leading to infectious abscesses...which, in a nasty cycle, require antibiotics for treatment.
3. Antibiotics in our food supply is harming our microbiome. I previously blogged on the importance of our microbiome for health. Overuse of antibiotics for our own bodies may have damaging side-effects related to the destructive alterations in our microbiome, such as, potentially, autoimmune diseases and obesity. But even conservative use of antibiotics for ourselves and for our kids still doesn't adequately reduce our exposure. With the antibiotics in our food supply, we are exposed to trace amounts of broad-spectrum antibiotics daily. Blaser writes, "For example, milk can legally have up to 100 micrograms of tetracycline per kilogram", which isn't a lot, but kids drinking milk daily can be exposed to meaningful quantities of antibiotics. And they're not just in purchasable foods, either-- tap water can contain antibiotics from farm runoff. Because of farm practices, it's difficult to avoid exposure, and our microbiomes are paying a price.
What can YOU do?
Choose USDA Process Verified "No Antibiotics Administered" products! Your consumer choices not only help protect yourself, they also affect others. Economically, you communicate to our relatively free ag market what you want, and, with increases in demand, it follows that there will be an increase in supply... and if the demand is great enough, more American farmers may finally take serious actions towards removing antibiotics from our food supply. Will health problems from missing microbes escalate, and will "superbugs" become a leading health--and mortality--risk? YOU help decide.