Let’s talk turkey or beef, or pork, chicken or almost any kind of meat that is grown these days with the injection of antibiotics to promote faster growth. It has become a vicious circle: Industrial farmers are using antibiotics as a cheap and easy way to produce more in a shorter period of time to break the profit margin. By so doing, they are putting consumers at greater risk for developing infections that are resistant to antibiotics.
This practice has been around since the 1950s when it was discovered that antibiotics not only cured infections in livestock and kept them healthy to go to market, but the drugs also promoted faster growth. There were no known side effects at that time and the faster turn-around time meant higher meat production, which meant lower prices. It seemed it was a win-win situation for everyone.
Antibiotic prescriptions for humans were also on the rise, mainly because the drugs were touted as a cure-all for many ills and because the drugs work so well – or used to. These two practices combined created the mess we have today.
MRSA is only one of a list of staph bacteria that is resistant to most common antibiotics. It is becoming a common word and no longer is it isolated to hospitals, nursing homes and other health settings.
The shocking news is MRSA alone causes 11,000 deaths in the United States alone and 2 million people contract other infections that are resistant to antibiotics with 23,000 of those dying as a result.*
We may not all be farmers but we are all consumers. We all need to have a say in how to “clean up the farm.” In 2011, antibiotic manufacturers sold 29.9 million pounds of drugs for use on industrial farms, four times the amount used to treat sick people and the highest amount ever reported. Let’s face it, most all the meat we consume comes from mass production. Hardly anyone butchers their own or buys from the small farmer around the corner anymore.
Even if you hardly eat meat or are a vegetarian does not mean you are avoiding antibiotics. Animals given antibiotics can develop resistant bacteria in their stomach and intestines; their feces can get into water or fertilizer and the drug-resistant bacteria can contaminate food crops; these in turn stay on the crops that people consume.
So, this brings up the question of buying and eating organic. That should solve the problem, right? Don’t forget that organic usually carries a much higher price tag and is out of many consumers’ budgets. Also, the labeling for organic meat can be worded as “raised without antibiotics,” “no antibiotics,” “no antibiotics ever,” or “no antibiotics added.” That makes it crystal clear, doesn’t it! What it boils down to is that the USDA doesn’t have a standard for labeling meat as antibiotic-free.
Even though we have a long way to go, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The Netherlands, known as America’s agricultural twin, has drastically reduced its use of antibiotics in meat without any reduction in efficiency or financial returns. Just six years ago they used more antibiotics in livestock production than any other country. Studies show that eliminating antibiotic use in animals could have an almost instantaneous effect on human and animal health.
Last year, the FDA banned medicines that would promote growth in animals used for food, however they did not go far enough because farmers can still administer low doses of antibiotics to prevent the animals from getting sick. This leaves the question wide open as to how much is too much.
So, what can we, as consumers, do to protect ourselves? Since election year is coming up, bombarding representatives and senators with cries to stop this practice is a start. Seeking election or re-election sometimes makes them more prone to listen to their constituents even though the proponents of antibiotic use have plenty of lobbyists bantering them too.
Another stronger approach may be to pressure big business to invoke change. If Applebee’s, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and other food giants promote antibiotic-free meat, farmers will comply.
In the meantime, we all must be diligent. As for my family and myself, we didn’t work all these years to spend retirement being sick and watching our grandkids become sick because of what industrial farmers are putting in our food to make the bottom dollar higher. Let’s clean up our farms today!