You may have heard the phrase shouted about in health circles, but what does it really mean?
Of course, one of the great contributions of modern science to human health is the development of antibiotics. These medicines kill harmful—and sometimes life-threatening—bacteria. Antibiotics have been overused and misused, however, prompting harmful bacteria to evolve to tolerate the chemicals that should destroy them and keep us safe.
Unfortunately, antibiotics in meat, dairy, and household products are significantly contributing to this deadly trend.
How Superbugs Form
Put simply: from a living organism’s perspective, you must adapt to survive.
“Superbugs” are the result of using antibiotics to prevent an infection instead of treating one. Antibiotic resistance is a worldwide problem because these bacteria are no longer susceptible to the compounds that rid of them. This has led to the creation of new, stronger antibiotics, whose use comes with its own dangerous consequences.
Unfortunately, some antibiotics have already stopped working against deadly infection, like MRSA. It’s conceivable that if things don’t change, infections will run rampant and again become life-threatening.
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Antibiotics in Meat
Part of the problem of antibiotic resistance for us is factory-raised animals for human consumption (poultry, pork, and beef, including dairy). Farmers routinely and unnecessarily treat these animals with antibiotics. When you eat animal products, you’re also ingesting whatever is stored in their flesh or contained in their milk. This means that you’re getting harmful antibiotics from your food unless you make the conscious decision to buy antibiotic-free organic meat.
Also, Animals raised for food are routinely administered hormones to make them grow faster and antibiotics to stave off infection, whether or not they’re sick. This practice brings animals to market faster and reduces the number of livestock lost to disease. The theory behind the regular use of antibiotics is to counter unsanitary (and some would say inhumane) conditions in which the animals live. Watch the short video below for a more in-depth explanation.
If you’re concerned, you should be: there are more doses of antibiotics given to animals than to humans. As a matter of fact, traces of antibiotic occur in 93% of the non-organic meat sold in the U.S.
You may notice in retail stores that meat will sometimes be labeled as “hormone-free” or “antibiotic-free”. That’s a good thing because it means that farmers didn’t inject or feed them medicines that may harm you. But what about meat that you eat in a restaurant? We don’t know where it comes from or what’s in it.
With heightened attention now given to drugs administered to farm animals, consumers are pressuring restaurants into taking a more careful approach to their meat suppliers to ensure they aren’t getting something they don’t want.
Antibiotic Exposure in Restaurants
Side salad with that burger? Yes, please. How about a dose of antibiotics with it? Um…no, thank you.
The Natural Resources Defense Council partnered with Friends of the Earth, Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, and Food Animal Concerns Trust in 2015 to investigate meat suppliers of the 25 largest American fast- and casual food chains and whether or not they tested positive for antibiotics in meat products.
Their findings were published in a report called “Chain Reaction” and serve as a baseline to measure what steps those restaurants are taking to remove antibiotics from the meat they serve.
Since then, some of the identified restaurant chains made voluntary commitments to limit the use of antibiotics in the meat they serve. The public interest groups listed above have since published“Chain Reaction II” to report how the chains did in 2016. (1)
Here’s the 2015 results:
And here’s the visual scorecard for 2016:
The very good news is that twice the number of restaurants surveyed achieved a passing score over 2015. Only Panera Bread and Chipotle, however, scored an “A”, meaning that their policies limit the routine use of antibiotics for all meat and poultry they serve.
Subway wants to get there too, and has committed to applying its anti-antibiotic policy for all its meats as well after the results of the 2015 tests. It jumped from an “F” in 2015 to a “B” in 2016 (no antibiotics in most of its offerings), showing huge strides toward that goal. A grade of “C” indicates the group found antibiotics in some but not all of a restaurant’s meats. “D” grades went to chains that made minimal efforts to curtail the antibiotics contained in its meat products. You’ll note that 16 of the 25 made no effort at all to improve the quality of their meat, including biggies like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks. (2)
More Than Just Antibiotic Resistance
Superbugs aren’t the only concern when it comes to ingesting antibiotics in meat.
The lab-grown antibiotics that we take to kill infections don’t know the difference between harmful and friendly bacteria. The digestive system contains gazillions of essential bacteria that digest food and combat infection. Taking an antibiotic detrimentally affects the balance of good bacteria in the body; illness, depression, and poor digestion can result from that.
If you eat meat, choose organic if you can. An organic certification means that animals must be raised without antibiotics, growth hormones or GMO food. Consider natural alternatives to pharmaceutical antibiotics if faced with a bacterial infection—you can find a list here.