The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria: In The Meat We Eat?

Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria:  In The Meat We Eat?

The Food Journal

September 16, 2013

Why are antibiotics used in meat?

Non (or sub) therapeutic antibiotics (mostly available over the counter from livestock supply stores) decrease the potential of illness – especially in herd animals. They are mostly administered through the food-producing animals’ drinking water or mixed into feed. While they also have the added benefit of increased growth as well as feed efficiency, sub-therapeutic antibiotics are not to be confused as playing that same role as hormones. Often consumers lump hormones, antibiotics and immunizations in meat into the same category regarding safety issues. As explained in TFJ’s “No Hormones Added” issue, the use of hormones in beef cattle are allowed by the FDA to increase the efficiency in which feed is converted to muscle. Antibiotics are compounds that kill bacteria.

Antibiotics should also be understood as distinct from immunizations or vaccines, which also decrease the potential of illness. Many of us will be immunized against this year’s flu. Animals are often immunized to prevent disease, and competent care is an important part of animal welfare. The USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) (the regulatory government body for vaccinations) explains in their Vaccination Info Sheet: “Vaccinations are an integral tool for preventing disease and for maintaining herd health. Vaccinations can improve overall herd health, resulting in decreased death loss and improved productivity.” 

Antibiotics are necessary for animals and humans alike. For feed animals, they are either injected or given orally with pills. Antibiotics routinely used in agriculture are fluoroquinolones, penicillin, tetracycline, erythromycin, lincomycin, tylosin, and virginiamycin. In Facts and Fiction: Common Antibiotic Myths, The Animal Health Institute states that, “For more than 40 years, antibiotics approved by the Food and Drug Administration have been used to treat sick animals, prevent and control illness and maintain their overall health.  Livestock and poultry producers rely on these products so they can provide U.S. consumers with the safest food possible.”

How the Government Regulates Antibiotic Resistance

National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) is a national public health surveillance system that tracks antibiotic resistance in foodborne bacteria. It is a partnership between the FDA, CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and the USDA.  

The Food Journalspoke at length with Dr. William Flynn, the Deputy Director for Science Policy at the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA about the vital role of NARMS, the FDA regulation of antimicrobial bacteria and its key recommendations which are “move away from animal use of antimicrobial drugs for growth promotion purposes when those drugs are medically important for humans" and "take those medically important drugs that are currently sold over the counter and bring them under the supervision of a veterinarian to ensure that they are used judiciously." Interview with Dr. William Flynn, DVM, Deputy Director for Science Policy at the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA

The Debate on the Changing Face of Bacteria

Medical scientists and researchers constantly battle antibiotic resistance. Physicians and scientists alike want to make sure that 'last resort' antibiotics for only the most serious infections are not rendered ineffective. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is one of the invasive health-care infections detailed in an issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. A bacterium that is the most common cause of staph infections and can also cause pneumonia, meningitis, toxic shock, skin abscesses, heart valve infections and other serious and deadly medical conditions, is now resistant to the antibiotics oxacillin, penicillin and amoxicillin, and developing resistance to newer drugs like methicillin and vancomycin.   

The question is whether this is a completely separate issue from antibiotic resistance in meat. In agreement with the FDA recommendations stated above, World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan says we are looking at “a post-antibiotic era,” making the point that “we must stimulate a robust pipeline for new antimicrobials, diagnostics and vaccines.” Regardless of the origin of a bacteria, R&D pipeline for new antimicrobials has been tapped and the pharmaceutical industry is responding researching new approaches.

While The NY Times reports, “In 2011, drugmakers sold nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics for livestock — the largest amount yet recorded and about 80 percent of all reported antibiotic sales that year. The rest was for human health care,” US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance points out in its Food Dialogues that, “One third of antibiotics used on farms and ranches are never used in human medicine.” We All Have A Role To Play, Commentary by Marty Strauss, Environmental Engineer and Molecular Biologist

Antibiotic-Free Labeling and Bans

An “Antibiotic-Free” label may resonate with consumers, but it is not USDA approved. Neither is “No Antibiotic Residues.” On this subject, Food Safety News quotes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as saying, “If the claim is not made for the animal’s entire life, the label can describe the number of days addressed by the claim as verified by a particular company of producer. Such a claim might be 'raised without antibiotics the last 120 days prior to finish.'”

In order to produce the food required by our growing population, certain diseases must be suppressed or they will spread rapidly through the farm. Animals need medical care and suffering should also be prevented. Animal Welfare Approved weighs in that, "The antibiotic-free campaign will make things worse. The unrealistic and impractical calls from the antibiotic-free campaigners could actually undermine the credibility (certainly in the eyes of the farming community) of those who are working diligently to introduce regulations and practices that really would ensure the judicious and responsible use of antibiotics in farming into the future.”

In the European Union, antibiotics that promote animal growth were banned in 2006. Sweden banned the use of any antibiotic for growth promotion as far back as 1998. In 1999, the Danish government banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. As pointed out by NPR, Denmark is a “pork powerhouse with millions of pigs and hundreds of farm operations that house tens of thousands of animals.” Lacking the support of antibiotics has had no negative financial effect on their pork production.   

Retailer Awareness and Consumer Action

There is the argument that Americans are antibiotic-happy in this day and age, taking drugs for the most minor of illnesses. The use of an antibiotic if an ailment is viral versus bacterial like a sinus infection or strep throat is not recommended as it has no impact on viruses. In a PBS Antibiotic Debate Overview, National Chicken Council spokesman Richard Lobb was quoted as saying, “People should look to themselves for the causes of antibiotic resistance.” 

Consumer Reports Meat on Drugs outlines 13 major supermarkets, and almost all carry products raised without antibiotics. While this is a solution for consumers who actively seek antibiotic-free meat, other customers may benefit from in-store specific tips for preparation or handling that minimize exposure and risk for their consumers. In-store dietitians can also support this need and help educate the consuming public. To reduce the risks of foodborne illness from all bacteria, including those that are resistant to antibiotics, the International Food Information Council Foundation suggests as general rules for handling food safely in your kitchen: Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill.  

Within the food industry, there are efforts to engage government in the problem. The Chef’s Collaborative, a national chef network, is working with Pew Charitable Trusts to ask chefs and food professionals to sign a letter to Sam Kass, Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy at the White House, about overuse of antibiotics in farm animals.