You’ve heard it said that you are what you eat. Well, I’ll take that a step further to say you are what they eat or ate—they meaning the plant or animal sources in your diet. In other words, if your diet consists of conventional foods made by typical agriculture standards, then chances are that you are consuming unwanted chemicals, hormones, antibiotics and more. In fact, it’s no secret that conventional livestock have had antibiotics—among other elements—added to their feed since the 1950s. The rationale behind using these drugs is that they have been used to prevent animal illness, to treat unhealthy livestock and to speed up the animals’ growth.
In my estimation, however, these drugs aren’t necessary, especially if livestock are raised and fed as they should be. For example, cows are meant to thrive on grass and other greens, not manufactured feed—especially feed laced with chemicals and antibiotics. Likewise, the cramped, inhumane conditions that most conventional livestock are raised in can predispose them to infections and disease. If, however, they are free to roam about, then the unsanitary, crowded conditions are no longer an issue.
Those are definite problems with conventional livestock, but antibiotics in animal feed has become fodder for the press these days. Several environmental and public health groups have filed suit against the Food and Drug Administration to have the government stop farmers from routinely adding antibiotics to livestock feed. They say that the widespread use of antibiotics in feed is causing a public health crisis in the form of increasing “superbugs” in humans that are antibiotic resistant—and I agree. The American Medical Association and the Infectious Diseases Society of American have also called on the FDA to ban feeding antibiotics to healthy animals.
Likewise, senior scientist Margaret Mellon at the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the groups who filed a suit in federal court, says, “The longer we use these drugs, the less effective the arsenal [to fight them off] becomes.” She filed the concern in federal court with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animals Concern Trust and Public Citizen.
Conventional livestock production groups, of course, don’t believe that antibiotics in feed contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans. I disagree, and even the FDA has suggested to farmers that resistant-bacteria problems in humans is a “public health issue of some urgency.” Apparently, a mere suggestion isn’t enough—which is why other steps are being taken.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, the sole microbiologist in Congress, has filed legislation that would ban the use of seven antibiotic classes unless animals are truly sick or drug companies can prove that their use doesn’t harm human health. She says, “We should be able to buy our food without worrying that eating it will expose our families to bacteria no longer responsive to medical treatments.” Interestingly, 80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are consumed by farm animals.
We know how the government and legislation in Congress can go, so I’m not holding my breath or waiting on anything to change, but here’s how antibiotic resistance directly affects us. Resistance to antibiotics occurs as bacteria mutate in response to excessive or prolonged use of antibiotics, like in animal feed that we, in turn, routinely ingest. The bacteria’s genes actually change, making them immune to antibiotics. Additionally, scientists have recently learned that these bacteria can also “go to sleep” so that antibiotics can’t take hold of bacterial walls—which protects the bacteria from being destroyed. Antibiotic resistance is real, too. Approximately 100,000 U.S. hospital patients die each year as a direct result of exposure to antibiotic-resistant superbugs, but the superbugs are increasingly affecting “healthy” people, too, and many scientists believe antibiotics in animal feed are contributing to the problem.
Consider that the next time you think about reaching for conventional livestock produce, and remember that you are what they eat or ate—antibiotics and all.