Antibiotics in Your Food: What's Causing the Rise in Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in Our Food Supply and Why You Should Buy Antibiotic-Free Food

By Barry Estabrook, "Growing Resistance," May/June 2013

As the use of antibiotics in farming and raising livestock has increased, new antibiotic resistant bacteria, or "superbugs" are emerging. Here's what you need to know about antibiotics in your food and eating antibiotic-free food.

"To suggest that there is only "one real solution" is a rather limited point of view. Perhaps that solution is the only one for you, but that does not make it ipso facto for everyone. I am a omnivore, eat meat sparingly and when I do I...

That Which Does Not Kill Me…
It’s hard to imagine that until World War II, infectious diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis were dreaded killers in this country. Beginning with the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s, these scourges could finally be cured with antibiotics. It was nothing short of a miracle. But scientists have always been aware that the miraculous antibiotics could become useless if they were underdosed and failed to knock out an infection completely. Bacteria are reproductive dynamos; a single Staph can divide every 30 minutes, meaning that one resistant bacterium is able to erupt into a colony of more than 1 million in less than a day. In the presence of a nonlethal dose of antibiotics, bacteria can mutate to become resistant, breeding a new strain. Which is exactly what began to happen on farms across the U.S.

In the early 1950s, drug companies began marketing antibiotics for livestock after studies showed that low doses of penicillin, tetracycline, bacitracin and other drugs used to cure infections in humans made animals grow more quickly. Unfortunately, within two decades there was persuasive scientific evidence that the low-dose antibiotics were a recipe for disaster. In a seminal 1976 study, Levy administered small amounts of the antibiotic tetracycline to a flock of chickens. Soon, the chickens were carrying E. coli bacteria that were resistant not only to tetracycline, but to other antibiotics as well. Within weeks, the farmers who tended those birds also carried resistant bacteria.

A year later (1977), the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency mandated to protect Americans’ health, announced plans to ban feeding livestock low doses of antibiotics, which, according to the FDA, had not been “shown safe for widespread, subtherapeutic use.” But bowing to pressure from legislators and agribusiness, the FDA failed to act on its recommendation, even after the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the World Health Organization identified subtherapeutic use of antibiotics as a human health issue. More than 30 years later, when the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups sued in 2011, the FDA revoked its recommendation and said that a “voluntary” effort would be more effective.

Next: The Use of Antibiotics in Hog Farming »

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