Despite Promises, Antibiotics in Meat Supply Skyrocketing

antibiotics in chicken meat

Story at-a-glance -

  • Despite farmers and food producers pledging to reduce or stop antibiotics use, a new report finds that sales of antibiotics for use on farms are going up
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that 62 percent of all the antibiotics used in animals for food production were “medically important” for human health
  • Scientists have warned that using so many antibiotics would result in antibiotic-resistant superbugs
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says at least 2 million people in the U.S. contract a bacterial infection that antibiotics can’t fix each year, and 23,000 die as a direct result

By Dr. Mercola

Heavy reliance on antibiotics in medicine and agriculture has brought about drug-resistant bacteria, which exacerbate successful treatment of many infections.

That’s a fact that people responsible for food production at large, from farm to table, say they’re very aware of, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been encouraging farmers to use as little antibiotics as possible.

Every year, many restaurants and supermarkets commit to only selling meat raised without antibiotics or at least a minimal amount.

So why are sales of “sub-therapeutic” antibiotics for use on swine, cattle and poultry, which represent the biggest protein sources for most Americans, still going up? The FDA’s latest statistics tell the story, related by NPR’s The Salt:

“Antibiotic sales for use on farm animals increased by 1 percent in 2015, compared to the previous year. The increase was slightly greater — 2 percent — for antibiotics used as human medicine …

But the FDA finds a glimmer of good news in the latest figures, pointing out that the rate of increase has slowed. In the previous year, antibiotic use had increased by 4 percent, and a total of 22 percent from 2009 to 2014.”1

Burger King and Tim Hortons restaurants say they’re switching to chicken raised sans antibiotics in U.S. stores in 2017, and in Canada in 2018, because it’s “critically important” to human medicine. Chick-fil-A, with the highest sales in the U.S., has committed to its switch to antibiotic-free chicken by the end of 2019.2

The Poultry Industry: ‘Striving to Do Better’

Chickens raised for food in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are definitely on the radar in this regard. Perdue Farms says it’s now raising 95 percent of its chickens without routine antibiotics, except the flocks that get sick, amounting to only 5 percent of all their birds.3

Tyson Foods announced in 2015 that it’s “striving to eliminate the use of human antibiotics from its U.S. broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017.”

President and CEO Donnie Smith said the company wants to do its part “to responsibly reduce human antibiotics on the farm so these medicines can continue working when they’re needed to treat illness.”4 But The Salt explains:

“Tyson will continue to deploy a class of antibiotics called ionophores, which can't be used on humans. The new report, however, doesn't shed any light on the impact of these moves, because it doesn't show how much of each drug is used on cattle, swine or poultry.”5

Dr. David Wallinga, from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said Tyson’s report "further underscores how urgently we need more and stronger government action" to decrease antibiotic use.

Beyond chicken CAFOs, bacteria found on cattle seem to be increasingly resistant to ciprofloxacin, and it’s worse for CAFO turkey, on which samples showed Salmonella ramping up that is resistant to more than a few drugs.

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‘Essential’ Antibiotics for Humans Losing Their Effectiveness

Not surprisingly, Ron Phillips from the Animal Health Institute (AHI), which represents veterinary drug manufacturers, thinks the FDA’s information on rising antibiotic sales doesn’t really address the issue of whether these types of drugs are making the drug-resistant bacteria problem even worse.

At the same time, he noted that another report from the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System6 was “encouraging” in that there’s no indication that bacteria found on meat when the animals are killed is any more resistant to most antibiotics now than in recent years.

However, new superbugs are emerging far too rapidly. For instance, a strain of E. coli resistant to not just one but two of our last-resort antibiotics has now emerged in the U.S.

And researchers also recently discovered a new gene, called mcr-1, in pigs and people in China — a gene mutation that makes bacteria resistant to our last-resort class of antibiotics.

Unfortunately, loopholes have made it far too easy for farmers to walk into a veterinary feed supply store and pick up an 80-pound bag of antibiotics without a prescription, but to get just 200 grams (7 ounces) for human use, a prescription would be required, Ramanan Laxminarayan, Ph.D., director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, told STAT.7

In 2015, an FDA report revealed that 62 percent of all the antibiotics used in food animals were “medically important” for human health and, further, “The FDA policy does not address antibiotics that are not medically important. Food livestock producers will still have open access to them.”8

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) Are Feeding the Problem

One of the most alarming aspects of the issue is that of all the antibiotics used in the U.S., around 70 percent are used for agricultural purposes — and that’s in large part for purposes of growth promotion and tohead off diseases that are rampant in CAFOs.

Conditions present when raising 1,000 or more cattle or 20,000 chickens in a small space and in the shortest amount of time possible can be nothing short of brutal. The “need” for antibiotics is largely for nothing other than bulking the animals up as much as possible for maximum profit.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that allowing less than a square foot of space for each chicken among thousands, without even enough space to move, leads to injuries and stress, and deplorable conditions, which leads to illnesses and, consequently, more drugs.

Superbugs Making Routine Surgeries ‘Dangerous’

Scientists have been warning that using antibiotics in increasing amounts, as they’ve been doing in recent years, would result in antibiotic-resistant superbugs, especially for chickens, pigs and cattle. But farmed fish and seafood are seeing the rise of a new breed, no pun intended.

Individuals at particular risk are those in need of risky procedures such as cardiac bypasses and organ transplants.

In fact, even surgery that has been thought of as routine, such as caesarean section and joint transplants, is now considered potentially dangerous because of the prevalence of these new and hard-to-kill superbugs, especially if they keep flourishing.

The British government recently released a report on the problem, and the news was ominous: While today around 700,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections globally, that number could skyrocket to 10 million by 2050. That’s only 33 years away.9

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which says around 2 million people in the U.S. contract a bacterial infection that antibiotics can’t fix every year,10 and 23,000 die as a direct result,11 added:

“Nearly one-third of all prescriptions for antibiotics are unneeded, or incorrectly prescribed by doctors, which is part of the problem … 47 million unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions are given every year in the United States.

Scientists are looking for new drugs to treat evolving bacteria, but the last new class of antibiotics was discovered in the 1980s. While pharmaceutical companies led the development of new antibiotics decades ago, that has changed.12

Even the United Nations (UN) General Assembly weighed in on what is now clearly a crisis, holding a high-level meeting for only the fourth time in its history that it’s time to tackle a health concern. CNBC reported that in some parts of world, there are bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics. Additionally:

“This was only the fourth time in the organization’s 71-year history that a health issue has been treated with such gravity, putting antibiotic resistance on par with HIV and ebola.”13

A ‘New Type of Antibiotic Resistance’ Shows Up on a Pig Farm

The antibiotics that are causing all the commotion are known as the carbapenem class, such as Doribax (doripenem), Primaxin (imipenem) and Merrem (meropenem), the type hospitals look toward as a “last line of defense against hard-to-treat bacterial infections,” CBS News said.14

Colistin is one drug used in more animals than people and is currently the only antibiotic left that works against some human infections. But colistin resistance, which probably started in livestock, began spreading worldwide in 2015. The European Medicines Agency says some EU countries could easily cut their use of this antibiotic 25-fold.15

In the U.S., these had been singled out for human use only to discourage resistant bacteria in animals that might spread to humans. Superbugs of this kind had been identified in livestock in Europe and Asia, but not in the U.S., until a commercial pig farm in America was studied for five months in 2015 and returned with a problem.

The problem gene, called blaIMP-27, was found after researchers took bacterial swabs and fecal samples from 1,500 pigs and the walls and floors of pig pens. It’s identified as one that can easily spread between species. Because it was found in an enclosed area rather than in an animal population being fattened for slaughter, the bug was deemed unlikely to have entered the U.S. food supply.

Asked where the superbug might have come from, Wittum could only answer that they didn’t know.Experts called it a “rare and unusual occurrence” and hoped they caught it early enough to prevent the superbug from spreading. Nevertheless, study author Thomas Wittum said:

“The risk to the public is that these are food animals that will someday enter the food supply as fresh pork products. While we didn’t find any evidence that that has occurred on this particular farm, it is a potential concern. We want to be sure that multidrug-resistant bacteria like these are never present in food, and one way to do that is to be sure that they are not introduced onto our farms.16

Voluntary Ban to Safeguard Essential Antibiotics

To cut to the chase, a new FDA policy took effect in the first few days of 2017 designed to keep certain antibiotics from being used to promote growth in food animals. It’s a voluntary ban aimed at safeguarding essential antibiotics for humans, which also puts these antibiotics under veterinarian control and makes them harder for farmers to access. Stat News said:

“Under the Food and Drug Administration policy, antibiotics that have been designated ‘medically important’ — in other words, they’re needed to treat people — cannot legally be given to healthy animals to speed their growth. The policy, three years in the making, requires producers of agricultural antibiotics to change labeling on the drugs to make clear they should not be used for so-called growth promotion. All manufacturers have agreed to abide by the new rule.”17

Unfortunately, since the ban is voluntary, all food manufacturers have to do to continue using these safeguarded drugs for illegal growth-promotion purposes is state that they’re using them for purposes of disease prevention.

Minimizing the Threat

Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., chair of the department of public health at Simmons College in Boston, said the pig superbug was particularly troubling because it’s a threat to global public health. “Although some experts think that it is already too late, and that we are living in a post-antibiotic era, I believe that there are still things that can be done to minimize the risk,” she said.18

She proposes banning the use of antibiotics as animal-growth promoters; using veterinary antibiotics to treat only sick animals; adopting smart antibiotic-prescribing in human medicine; and generally reducing the number of antibiotics being prescribed. Eating organic food, raised without the use of antibiotics (except in limited cases when medically necessary), is also extremely important.

As it stands, The Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN) asserts that the huge numbers of pig CAFOs are literally changing the pattern of flu seasons, because they open the door, so to speak, for flu viruses to cross from humans to animals and vice versa. In two of those flu seasons in the winters of 2009 and 2010, flu cases peaked much earlier than in 2008 and 2012.

Researchers at Duke University believe the virus going around in the earlier flu seasons was carried onto farms by workers and spread to the pigs. As it circulated among the animals, the virus reproduced far more prolifically than it would have if it hadn’t been in a CAFO.19

Experts in several arenas are watching to see how food livestock producers will respond to the new FDA law, especially in light of the promises they’ve made.