Eighty percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to animals (DeNoon, 2012; Sandoiu, 2018). This has raised concerns about the development of superbugs – bacteria that have evolved a resistance to antibiotics due to constant low-level exposure. Because these germs cannot be killed easily with antibiotics, they are more likely to have fatal consequences.
Many organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), consider the development of drug-resistant bacteria a significant threat to human health.
Why are farm animals given antibiotics?
Farm animals are given antibiotics for a couple of reasons. The first is that they are more likely to get sick than wild animals because they are housed in crowded industrial farms, weaned and taken away from their mothers too early, and fed an unnatural diet. Stress, poor nutrition, and being denied the immune-boosting benefits of mother’s milk all have negative impacts on their immune systems, putting them at greater risk for infections, abscesses, and ulcers, so the whole herd is often given antibiotics in their feed as a preventative measure.
The second reason farm animals are given antibiotics is that it makes them grow faster, fulfilling a demand for cheap meat. Giving antibiotics solely to promote rapid growth has been banned in some countries but not others.
When animals are regularly given low doses of antibiotics, drug-resistant germs develop, which can then spread to people.
How many people die from antibiotic-resistant bacteria?
According to the CDC, antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause more than 2.8 million infections and 35,000 deaths in the U. S. alone each year (CDC, 2019). Moreover, a 2001 study found that 84% of salmonella bacteria in supermarket ground beef was antibiotic-resistant, and an estimated 11,000 people suffered intestinal illnesses due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in chicken during 1999 (Hoffman, 2008). Based on current trends, some researchers have predicted that by 2050, antibiotic-resistant bacteria will kill more than 10 million people each year, displacing cancer as the number one killer (Sandoiu, 2018).
Consuming antibiotics in meat also reduces the population of beneficial human gut bacteria that fulfill a number of helpful functions such as weight regulation, putting meat eaters at greater risk for obesity (Sandoiu, 2018).
Are there other causes of antibiotic resistance in bacteria besides overuse in farming?
Antibiotic use in farming is not the only factor contributing to the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Over-prescription of antibiotics, particularly for infections they cannot cure (for example, any illness caused by a virus) and poor hygiene and sanitation in hospitals also add to the problem (Sandoiu, 2018). However, the use of antibiotics in agriculture significantly increases the risk of being overwhelmed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
According to a survey conducted by Consumer Reports (2012), 86% of consumers believe that antibiotic-free meats should be available in their local supermarkets. However, although many people oppose regular antibiotic use in farming, industrial agricultural and pharmaceutical interests have resisted ending the practice.
Are organic meats free of antibiotics?
For those who want to avoid contributing to the development of superbugs, organic is a good choice because the routine use of antibiotics is not permitted in organic farming.
- CDC, “More People in the United States Dying from Antibiotic-Resistant Infections than Previously Estimated,” 13 November 2019, CDC.gov.
- Consumer Reports, Meat on Drugs, June 2012, Consumerreports.org.
- DeNoon, D.J., “Antibiotics in Food Animals: FAQ,” MedicineNet.com, 6 January 2012, Medicinenet.com.
- Hoffman, M., MD, “Safer Food for a Healthier You,” WebMD, 18 December 2008, WebMD.com.
- PBS, “Antibiotic Debate Overview,” 2014, PBS.org.
- Roosevelt/Grandview, M., “The Grass-Fed Revolution,” Time Magazine, 11 June 2006, Time.com.
- Sandoiu, A., Drug Resistance: Does Antibiotic Use in Animals Affect Human Health? Medical News Today, 9 November 2018, Medicalnewstoday.com.