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...

A Better Solution?
So could keeping antibiotics off the farm keep humans out of the hospital? In 2009, Tara Smith of the University of Iowa sought to answer that question. As part of the study, she took nasal swabs from Sarah Willis, Willis’s 11-year-old daughter, mother and father and their farm workers to test for MRSA. Smith was interested in the family because Sarah’s father, Paul Willis, founded Niman Ranch’s pork collective in the late 1990s. The operation has since grown to include more than 500 family farmers. Niman farmers never administer antibiotics to livestock nor do they confine their animals in CAFOs. On the day I visited Sarah Willis, the pigs on her family’s 800-acre property were playing chase with each other or snoozing in the late-autumn sunshine of their paddocks—a rare sight in Iowa.

Smith also tested nine other farmers who did not use antibiotics. And she tested nine farmers who did administer the drugs to their animals. The results? Even though all the farmers in her tests ran large, commercial pig operations, not one of the producers who avoided antibiotics tested positive for MRSA, while nearly half the farmers who routinely used antibiotics on their pigs carried resistant bacteria. In other words, avoiding the drugs on the farm might be one way of reducing the prevalence of these virulent strains.

The findings resonated with Sarah Willis. One of those pig CAFOs is less than a mile from her house. In 2011, there were seven cases of MRSA in her daughter’s school district. It took two rounds of antibiotic treatment to cure the youngsters. “I avoid meat raised on antibiotics due to health concerns,” Willis said. “But it’s more important to me that I am voting with my dollars. I would rather spend my money on food that is raised responsibly.”

The real tragedy of subtherapeutic antibiotic use is that it is unnecessary. Before joining Niman, Paul Willis administered antibiotics to his hogs. “And we had more health problems with our animals then than now,” he said, when Sarah and I met him at a cafe. “Going antibiotic-free is not only good for people, but animals as well.” Studies in Denmark, a major pork-producing country that banned subtherapeutic antibiotics in 2000 (followed by the rest of the European Union in 2006), confirm Paul Willis’s observations. In Denmark, incidences of resistant bacteria fell dramatically, in both people and animals, after the ban. Pork production rose.

Next: A Demand for Drug-Free »

Get a full year of EatingWell magazine.
World Wide Web Health Award Winner Web Award Winner World Wide Web Health Award Winner Interactive Media Award Winner