Livestock, Antibiotics, and the Foods You Eat

Monday, June 22, 2015

The overuse of antibiotics in livestock production is a growing public health issue, impacting humans, animals and the planet.

Cow standing in a field

What do Overlake Hospital, University of Washington Medical Center, and the National Park Service have in common? They are a few examples of organizations purchasing more meat and poultry raised without antibiotics.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) agree that the overuse of antibiotics for raising livestock is a serious public health issue. Some farmers may administer antibiotics to livestock in order to promote growth. Unfortunately, bacteria exposed to antibiotics can develop resistance. The problem is serious because some antibiotics used in meat production are also used to treat human illness. Overusing antibiotics in livestock production has helped to create difficult-to-treat "superbugs" like antibiotic-resistant Staph, or MRSA.

Policy changes that could help curb the problem occur slowly. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is phasing out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. Yet, farmers can still use them for disease prevention.

The biggest driver of change in the food industry is the consumer. When consumers demand a healthier product, the industry can take a financial risk to meet that demand. By choosing to supply animal products produced without the use of antibiotics, large institutions like restaurants and supermarkets are key players in preventing a looming public health crisis. Animal products produced without antibiotics can reduce the risk of humans contracting multi-drug resistant bacterial infections and improve animal welfare standards. While meats raised without antibiotics can be more expensive, the cost is supporting a healthier future for humans, animals, and the planet.

When you choose to buy meat or poultry that is free of antibiotics, make sure to look for the following labels: “raised without antibiotics”, “no antibiotics administered” or “no antibiotics added.” Antibiotic use is also not permitted in meats labeled as organic.

— By Joanna Wirkus, Bastyr dietetic intern, and Amy Frasieur, MS, RD, core faculty in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University.

FALL 2017

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