Our Messed-Up Food System: Antibiotic in Meats

When I recently attended a panel related to healthy school lunches (which you may or may not care about), I heard some alarming information about antibiotics in meat production (which I think you definitely will care about).  What I learned in an hour could save my life – and now maybe it will save yours.  The evidence is so compelling.  Honestly, can’t we as a society make better choices for public health in our country?  I walked away thinking “Why on earth do we eat meat treated with antibiotics?”  And, I’ll even go one step further to say, “How can we allow antibiotics this to happen?”  Here’s how it breaks down, as I understand it.  Factory farms jam their animals into small, crowded, unsanitary environments and are fed antibiotics to speed up their growth.  The animals and their new bacteria become antibiotic resistant, and then here’s the fun part:  THEY PASS ON ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANT BACTERIA IN THE MEAT YOU BUY.

So, why is it bad to have antibiotic resistant bacteria in your food?  If the bacteria gets passed on to you when you eat it, then you might not be able to be treated by antibiotics and you could get very sick or die.  The microbiologist Dr. Lance Price from The Translational Genomics Research Institute was on the panel I went to, and here are a few tid-bits I picked up…

  • 70% of all antibiotic sold in the U.S. go to food animals that aren’t sick.
  • Salmonella is one of the most common food-borne antibiotic resistant bacteria (perhaps you’ve heard of it?).  Well, the reason why it is so scary is because if you get infected with it, it is very likely there is no drug that your doctor can give you to make you better.
  • Only one out of 300 packages of ground turkey and one out of 100 packages of chicken breast are NOT infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  Not great odds.
  • The FDA knows all this.  In fact, they issued a report in 2010 that identified several food-borne bacteria found in meat that could not be treated with any of the antibiotics that were employed.  And they have shown a direct link between routine use of antibiotics in food production and antibiotic resistance in humans.

Dr. Price referred to antibiotics as our “crown jewels”.   I mean, how great are they really – you get sick, they make you better (anyone who has had a child with an ear infection knows this).  But, you have to use them sparingly for them to work when you need them.  And, we’re knowingly allowing factory farms to use them to save a buck.  That just doesn’t make any sense.

So, here are my parting thoughts based on what I learned…

  • Wherever possible, choose meat that is listed as anti-biotic free.  At grocery stores, look at the label or ask.  Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are both great choices for anti-biotic free meat (I asked for it at the local Dominic’s deli counter and the woman looked at me like I was wackadoo but then did go into the “back” and find some).
  • Support restaurants that offer anti-biotic free meat.  Chipoltle and Panera are some major chains that do.  There are many more local ones, too.
  • If you are interested in getting involved, taking action, signing petitions or just reading more, check out the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming at SaveAntibiotics.org.  And, I also found this youtube video with Dr. Price explaining the whole situation.  It’s well worth the 6 minutes to watch it here.

We, at Slow Dwelling, have some strong opinions about the U.S. food systems and the messed-up choices we face every day with regards to food.  Some decisions we make are hard and take a lot of effort and others seem to be just a matter of awareness and a little deliberate action.  This one feels like a slam dunk.

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