Animal Antibiotics: Should We Be Concerned?

Nov 29, 2018 | Food and Nutrition, Sustainable Agriculture

The Dirt:

Two million: The population in New Mexico. Two million: The number of people, each year, who get an antibiotic-resistant infection. Now imagine the entire state of New Mexico infected with strains of bacteria unaffected by antibiotics. How does this happen? Is it coming from our food?

Last week was U.S. Antibiotic Awareness Week, which was sponsored by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, the World Health Organization has stated that global antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest issues facing human health today. Our team decided to dive into a common consumer concern – the belief that most antibiotic-resistant infections stem from animal production.

Resistance occurs naturally as bacteria mutate, but the overuse of antibiotics has accelerated this process. For instance, overuse or misuse comes when people take antibiotics for a cold or don’t finish their full prescription. Overuse toward animals is when too many antibiotics are given in their feed or water for their growth. Today, when large amounts of antibiotics are present in an environment – whether it is a hospital or in the feedlot – the mutated strain can reproduce faster than the antibiotic.

No one wants to unknowingly eat foods with antibiotic residues or that contain resistant strains of bacteria. To better understand this, we set out to answer four major questions:

  1. Why do farmers use antibiotics in animals in the first place?
  2. If I eat animals treated with antibiotics, will the bacteria in my body become antibiotic resistant?
  3. If the chicken breast I regularly buy at the store doesn’t say “antibiotic free”, does that mean I am unknowingly consuming antibiotics?
  4. How are regulators and companies in the food industry monitoring antibiotics used for both animals and humans?

Why do farmers give animals antibiotics?

Farmers give animals antibiotics when they are sick. It is inhumane not to! Just like with humans, if an animal contracts a bacterial infection, it would be torture to not treat them with antibiotics. Not to mention, this also keeps the sick animal from passing an infection through the herd.

Antibiotics are also given to support animal growth rates. Farmers administer them routinely in feed or water to help grow animals, poultry, and fish more quickly. The premise behind this application is that if an animal’s immune system is not fighting off a disease, then their bodies will spend their energy growing instead of trying to stay healthy. This application for antibiotics is being heavily scrutinized.

If I eat animals treated with antibiotics, will the bacteria in my body become antibiotic resistant?

No. When meat is properly cooked, there is no chance of becoming resistant to antibiotics in your kitchen. A minimum heat of 160 degrees kills all bacteria – resistant or not. The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends that you clean, separate, cook, and chill your meat properly to prevent getting a foodborne illness.

image source: Foodal

What if the chicken breast I regularly buy at the store doesn’t say “antibiotic free”? Does that mean I am unknowingly eating antibiotics?

No. Even though a farmer will use antibiotics to treat a sick animal, the FDA has strict withdrawal guidelines that require all animals, poultry, and fish be clear of any antibiotic residue before it is harvested. They also specifically state the maximum dosage based on type and weight. All chicken, beef, turkey, pork, eggs, milk, and fish are antibiotic-free by the time they get to the grocery store.

The U.S. National Residue Program, an interagency program between the FSIS, FDA, EPA, and the USDA tests for any chemical or drug residues as well as foodborne illnesses in all types of animal products. Testing is consistent, the rules are clear, and the consequences are harsh. In 2017, less than 1% of the samples contained an antibiotic residue.

A Dirt-to-Dinner chicken

What is being done to combat antibiotic resistance in farm animal production?

The FDA has enacted a five-year plan to curtail antibiotic use in animals. This plan includes the following guidelines:

  1. No medically important antibiotics (that means antibiotics that are also used to treat human bacterial infections) can be used to treat animals for growth. Medically important drugs, such as tetracyclines and penicillin, will no longer be used to treat animals.
  2. Veterinarians must supervise the use of any medically important antibiotics given to food production animals for the sole purpose of treating illnesses.

As of July 2018, Iowa State University is leading a national institute to address this public health issue. They have partnered with the USDA, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Medical Center, Mayo Clinic and other organizations to form the Institute for Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education.

Major food companies, restaurants, grocery stores, and food producers have vowed to reduce antibiotic use, mostly for growth purposes. Many are doing intense research on animal gut health to reduce the need for antibiotics. Animal welfare also plays a role to make sure the animals, poultry, and fish are growing in a healthy environment. Antibiotics will no longer be used as a crutch for poor animal care.

Putting antibiotics into perspective

Those fearful of antibiotics used in food production often misinterpret the statistic that 80% of all antibiotics are used for animal production. This number is misleading, and simply put, is a matter of volume…

Each year, about 8 billion chickens, 200 million turkeys, 100 million hogs and 30 million cattle are processed in the U.S. alone. Compare that number to the U.S. human population of 325 million. That’s only 40% of the animal volume!

According to the Centers for Disease Control, most of the biggest threats can be avoided if one stays healthy and doesn’t overdo it on the antibiotics. When it comes to concerns about our food supply, the three most prevalent antibiotic-resistant strains are not the result of animal antibiotics. They are found either in hospitals or are spread from person to person: Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, and Neisseria gonorrhea. One example is C. Difficile due to the overuse of antibiotics.

The CDC states that overuse is the single most important factor leading to antibiotic resistance around the world. They state that up to 50% of all antibiotics prescribed to humans are either not needed or not used properly. The two that are related to food are Campylobacter and Salmonella. But those can be prevented by handling your meat carefully and cooking it properly!

The Bottom Line:

There is a strong awareness among the food industry to use antibiotics responsibly to keep animals healthy. All meat, poultry, dairy, and fish are antibiotic free when they reach your grocery store shelves. Plus, if you cook your meat properly, you will not eat any bacteria at all! Most importantly, talk to your doctor about the proper uses and doses of antibiotics to lessen the spread of antibiotic-resistant illnesses.