The meat case at your local supermarket could contain something far scarier than the most bloodthirsty Halloween zombie.
That’s because current methods of meat production are leading to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 people die as a direct result of these infections.
Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.
“The most diabolical villain could not design a better system for creating superbugs than the modern concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO),” or factory farm, said Lance Price, professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.
In CAFO’s, large numbers of animals are crowded into a confined space, meaning that trillions of bacteria can easily be transmitted from one animal to another. “When I see these operations, I don’t see factories making meat. I see factories making trillions and trillions and trillions of drug-resistant bacteria,” said Price, who holds a doctorate in environmental health sciences.
Antibiotic use in livestock
Price spoke at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement.
In his talk, Price pointed out that the vast majority of antibiotic use in this country is in animal food production. While human medicine accounts for 7.7 million pounds of antibiotic — which, he noted, is “way too much” — 30 million pounds of antibiotics are used in industrial farming.
Further, he said, “the best estimates suggest that only 20% of that is being used to treat sick animals. The other 80% is being used as production tools, to make animals grow faster, to prevent diseases, or treat diseases occurring just because of the way we’re raising animals.”
This leads to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “You have tens of thousands of animals crammed together in filthy, stressful conditions. You have loads of bacteria living in those animals. And you have the magic ingredient — a steady stream of low-dose antibiotics,” Price said. From there, he said, “it’s just a matter of evolution.”
“Every now and then, one bacterium will pick up a mutation that makes them resistant to antibiotics,” Price explained. “If that’s happening in an environment where you have a lot of antibiotics, then the susceptible bacteria are going to die off and the resistant ones are going to multiply. And the thing about bacteria is they multiply very quickly. You can go from a single drug-resistant E. coli to a billion in 24 hours.”
Dangers of ‘superbugs’
Drug-resistant bacteria end up on meat when the animals harboring them are slaughtered. “Those bacteria go on to cause drug-resistant infections in people,” Price said.
Major health organizations have been raising the alarm about superbugs. The World Health Organization, for example, states that “antibiotic resistance is no longer a prediction for the future; it is happening right now, across the world, and is putting at risk the ability to treat common infections in the community and hospitals.”
Yet despite this bleak picture, Price says there is room for hope — if we make some fundamental changes.
First, he said, “We have to embrace this idea that antibiotics are different, and value them for what they are. They’re just short of a miracle — they save people’s lives. We should only be using them to treat sick people and sick animals.”
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The key to making this happen is changing the way we raise animals for food. “If you remove the antibiotics from food animal production, many of those bacteria will revert to being susceptible to those antibiotics again,” Price said.
Other changes are also needed, he said. “We need to increase hygiene in our hospitals, homes and food production systems,” Price said. Development of new antibiotics is also needed, although, he noted, bacteria have been developing resistance to antibiotics ever since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.
Decoding meat labels
Consumers can play a role by only buying meat from animals raised without antibiotics. Organizations such as Consumer Reports offer guidance on how to decode labels to ensure your meat comes from such animals. The National Resources Defense Council and the Pew Charitable Trusts are among other groups working on this issue.
The meat industry has taken some steps in response to the increased concern. Earlier this fall, for example, Perdue Farms announced it would stop using antibiotics in its hatcheries.
“The good news is the models exist,” Price said. “My dream is that we stop propping up this broken system with antibiotics, that we let farmers be farmers again, that we have animals live like healthy animals again, and that we save antibiotics for future generations. We can do this. But we have to act now.”
Main photo: Cattle at a factory farm. Credit: tepic/iStockphoto