Antibiotics In Our Food: How Much Is Too Much?

Video by Diana Wilkinson and Erica Halvorson

 
According to The George Washington University professor Lance Price, the livestock industry's overuse of antibiotics is endangering our antibiotics, and the government isn’t doing much to stop it. But you can.

In A World Without Antibiotics

When I was sick as a kid, I could always rely on a quick trip to the doctor and a prescription for antibiotics to help me feel better within a couple of days — but after I felt better, it was easy to forget about taking my medication.

My mom, however, always made sure I finished every last pill. She vehemently told me that if I didn’t finish all of my medicine, the antibiotics might not work the next time I was sick. I couldn’t imagine a world where I didn’t have that valuable resource of antibiotics, so I made sure to take every dose.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as conscious of the fragile sustainability of antibiotics as my mom. Some scientists believe that industrial farmers abuse antibiotics when raising food animals, adding low-doses of antibiotics to their feed every day — even before their animals are sick.

The consistent use of antibiotics creates an environment that allows antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria to cultivate and multiply. Because the bacteria are often exposed to the drugs, they can evolve and develop a resistance. Those bacteria could then potentially make consumers sick.

One of the best things a consumer can do is become informed about the use of antibiotics in food animal production. Knowing the potential effects will allow them to make the best choice at the grocery store, and just as Price said, “help drive the marketplace.”

I can’t know whether consumers will choose to follow Price’s advice and shop for animal products raised without antibiotics. I can only hope that everyone can find a valuable resource, like my mom, to help make informed decisions regarding antibiotics. 

After all, it’s a scary thought that on my next trip to the doctor, the medicine might stop working.

— Diana Wilkinson 

There are few people alive today who can remember a time without antibiotics. Ever since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, we’ve relied on antibiotics to save us from all sorts of dangerous bacterial infections. A professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University with a Ph.D. in environmental health sciences from Johns Hopkins University, Price warns that we might be losing the power of these life-saving drugs.

We’re already seeing the ramifications of antibiotic resistance. The Centers for Disease Control reports that every year at least 2 million people in the United States become sick with infections caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria — infections that kill 23,000 Americans each year.

This is a problem. And according to Price, the solution is on your plate.

Antibiotics are used in food animals for three different reasons: to treat sick animals (therapeutic use), to prevent the spread of infections (preventive or control use), and to promote growth and production in food animals. Few people argue against therapeutic use; even Price agrees that drugs are needed to treat infections. But as much as 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States end up going to healthy animals.

Defenders of large-scale antibiotic use in food animals say that restricting the use of antibiotics in the agricultural industry would make it harder for veterinarians and farmers to do their jobs. It could limit veterinarians’ ability to treat sick animals, and make it harder for food distributor’s to ensure food safety in the meat we feed to our families.

Thankfully, consumers have the ability to make their own decisions about antibiotic use in food production, and act on these decisions in their daily lives.

Consumers can make a difference. We’re already seeing the power of supply and demand first hand; Walmart, the icon of big food business, began offering organic food at affordable prices when the retailer teamed up with Wild Oats earlier this year.

Here’s what concerned consumers can do:

  • Look for “organic” and “antibiotic free” labels in the grocery store.
  • Talk to distributors at your local farmers market. Ask how they use antibiotics on their farm.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask restaurants where their food comes from. Restaurants are in the service industry — let suppliers know that there is a demand for sustainable food.
  • Use the hashtag #StopSuperbugs to join the conversation on social media. 

How Antibiotic Resistance Works

An Antibiotic-Free Breakfast

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