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Bad Medicine: Consumers Want Meat Without Antibiotics, and Major Brands Are Noticing

Used responsibly, antibiotics are lifesavers that keep horrific infections at bay. But pumping our livestock full of these wonder drugs could lead to devastating results.
(Photo: l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock)

(Photo: l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock)

Back in 2013, my Natural Resources Defense Council colleague Sasha Stashwick visited the McDonald’s corporate headquarters in the Chicago suburbs, accompanied by several like-minded partners. Their mission: Convince senior management at the world’s largest restaurant chain to take antibiotics off the menu.

Why would an environmental organization ask a fast-food chain like McDonald’s—with more than 14,000 restaurants spread across the United States—to reduce its reliance on drugs that kill harmful bacteria? The simple answer: Even when antibiotics are effective at eradicating 99 percent of the dangerous microorganisms living inside a chicken, cow, or other livestock animal, the small number of bacteria that do manage to survive end up flourishing—and growing stronger.

For the past five decades or so, human beings have been on the winning side of a perpetual arms race against bacteria, thanks largely to the powerful arsenal of antibiotics we’ve developed to counter a wide array of infections. With the help of these wonder drugs, we can now safely perform surgeries, transplant organs, administer chemotherapy, and beat back infectious assaults throughout the body. Unfortunately, by over-prescribing antibiotics, we’ve also helped to create a class of “superbug” bacteria that have evolved to resist these powerful medicines. And overprescribe we do: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that half of all antibiotics used by humans are unnecessary.

But while generations of doctors have certainly exacerbated the problem, the surprising truth is that 80 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are sold to a different profession: livestock producers. Pigs, chickens, and cows raised in industrial livestock operations are routinely given this same class of antibiotics in order to make them grow bigger and faster, or to enable them to survive the crowded, stressful, and unsanitary conditions that often define animal life on today’s industrial farms.

Unfortunately, by over-prescribing antibiotics, we’ve also helped to create a class of "superbug" bacteria that have evolved to resist these powerful medicines.

If you wanted to create the perfect system for generating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hospitable venue than the modern-day industrial feedlot. These operations typically house hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of animals—all packed together in closely confined spaces where they’re forced to wallow in their own waste. It’s an ideal scenario for the breeding of harmful microorganisms. By administering antibiotic regimens to their livestock, producers are able to kill many of these microorganisms. But the few antibiotic-resistant ones that survive and multiply can then go on to colonize workers, float for miles on airborne dust, stow away in the manure that gets trucked from animal facilities to fertilize farm fields, or hitch a ride on the raw meat that eventually finds its way to your local McDonald’s or to your kitchen.

These pathogenic pathways have been thoroughly documented by a vast, and still-growing, scientific literature. Each year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tests thousands of raw chicken, turkey, pork, and beef products taken from America’s grocery stores, and each year the test results come back the same: Most of the samples have been contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria of one kind or another. Even more worrisome are the increasing signs that bacteria originating on the feedlot or in the chicken barn are actually capable of transferring their genetically coded resistance traits to other microorganisms they encounter along their journey—effectively “teaching” new bacteria how to thwart antibiotics.

That we’ve inadvertently introduced a new category of dangerous superbugs into our environment is frightening. But it isn’t new. The FDA has known about the public-health threats posed by antibiotics in the livestock industry for decades. (In fact, NRDC has obtained and published scientific reviews—authored by the FDA’s own scientists—that acknowledge these threats.) Nevertheless, the agency has yet to take any kind of decisive action to address the problem. Instead it has opted to issue to the livestock industry a voluntary “guidance” that would be ineffective even if it didn’t already contain a loophole the size of a barn door. While it explicitly discourages the use of antibiotics for the specific purpose of speeding animal growth, it implicitly endorses—through its silence on the matter—the use of these same drugs for the purpose of “disease prevention,” even as it exerts no pressure on livestock operators to provide healthier living conditions for their animals.

The FDA has known about the public-health threats posed by antibiotics in the livestock industry for decades.

The good news is that while the FDA may be unwilling to pick a fight with the pharmaceutical and livestock lobbies, consumers have decided that they’re not willing to wait around for the government to solve this problem. Instead they’re increasingly voting with their wallets—choosing meat they know has been produced without a reliance on antibiotics. Major brands are noticing. Chipotle, Panera Bread, Whole Foods, Chick-fil-A, Carl’s Jr., Perdue Farms, and a number of other companies have already begun making significant changes to their supply chains, selling antibiotic-free meats in direct response to growing customer demand. As it happens, the most recent addition to this group of forward-thinking companies is none other than McDonald’s, which recently—two years after Sasha Stashwick visited its Oak Brook, Illinois, headquarters—announced that it would be eliminating from its U.S. poultry supply the routine use of antibiotics that can also be used to treat humans.

This rise in consumer awareness, coupled with the promising response by food-industry brands, puts NRDC in a great position to make sure that responsible antibiotics use actually becomes the new industry standard. Even though Congress and the FDA (for the moment, at least) aren’t serving as models of national leadership on this issue, opportunities to craft and implement model policies abound. Last year we campaigned in public to persuade Foster Farms, the largest chicken producer on the West Coast, to adopt new and better antibiotic stewardship practices, and we remain hopeful that the company will soon distinguish itself as a leader. Meanwhile, we continue to hold discussions with other major food retailers and restaurant chains and to advance model legislation in California and Maryland—two states that have expressed a willingness to play the leadership role abdicated by the FDA.

With support from fed-up consumers demanding their right to healthier food, NRDC and its allies are having a major impact. Together, by dissuading livestock producers from over-using precious, medically necessary antibiotics—and by recognizing those food companies that are stepping up to the plate to address the problem—we can help keep human beings on the winning side of the unending fight against deadly superbugs.

This post originally appeared on onEarth as “NRDC Voices: Bad Medicine” and is re-published here under a Creative Commons license.