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The use of antibiotics in livestock, poultry and game meat is one of the most hotly debated topics in the food industry. Everyone and their Mom is talking about it. A simple internet search on ‘antibiotics use in animals’ yields over 20 million results. Here’s what we think you need to know about antibiotics in our food supply:
What are antibiotics?
This seems like a silly thing to discuss. Chances are most of us have fallen ill with a nasty bug and needed a dose of antibiotics at some stage. But before we understand how antibiotics work in animals, we need to understand what they do.
Simply put, antibiotics kill bacteria. Some are broad spectrum like amoxicillin. That is, they target many different types of bacteria. Others work on specific families of bacteria and have a narrower focus . Either way, the goal is to kill the root-cause of bacterial (and sometimes protozoal) infections.
One of the biggest issues with antibiotics is overuse. Each time an antibiotic is used, some bugs get clever and mutate, creating new forms of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These new ‘superbugs’ can transfer their genetic material from one bacteria to another, propagating a powerful, multi-strain army of antibiotic-resistant bugs. According to a 2013 report by the CDC, drug-resistant bacteria sicken 2 million people a year, and kill 23 000 .
Antibiotic use in animals
Much like humans, antibiotics were initially used to treat and prevent bacterial infection in animals. However, in the 70s farmers discovered that adding antibiotics to animal feed produced fatter animals, which greatly increased antibiotic use.
In 2012, the FDA recommended that livestock producers adopt voluntary measures to limit medically important antibiotics in animals to uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health and that include veterinary oversight . Despite this, approximately 1 in 5 resistant infections are believed to arise from food and animals .
Superbugs: A threat to human health
Consuming contaminated meat is one of several ways that superbugs can end up in our system. When animal manure is used to fertilize food crops, superbugs can end up on produce and in soil. Superbug-containing chicken manure may also come in contact with eggs in the coop.
These foods then makes their way into factories, restaurants, supermarkets and homes leaving a trail of antibiotic resistant bacteria wherever they go. Superbugs can live in your gut for long periods of time, waiting to pounce when you’re most vulnerable .
Who’s most likely to get sick?
Hosting superbugs in your gut doesn’t guarantee you will get sick. Some populations are more likely to fall ill with an antibiotic resistant infections than others. Groups at particularly high risk include :
- The elderly
- Chemotherapy patients
- Anyone sick, hospitalized or with chronic immunity issues such as HIV, organ transplant patients, etc.
- Pregnant women
There’s a good reason everyone and their Mom is talking about antibiotic use in animals. Widespread use of antibiotics has given rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which may pose a significant public health threat.
In the next post…
Read the next post to learn what you can do in your home to minimize the spread of antibiotic resistant superbugs, and how some food producers are tackling this problem.