Experts say the overuse of antibiotics on farms is making germs more drug-resistant as well as making our medications less effective against infections.
Despite warnings by global health experts, some drug manufacturers continue to urge livestock farmers to use antibiotics beyond what may be necessary.
That was the finding of a New York Times story earlier this month. That investigation reported that drug makers have been pushing to sell more antibiotics to farmers, in spite of warnings about how overuse is leading to germs becoming antibiotic-resistant.
The antibiotic resistance wouldn’t just mean that sick pigs, cows, and chickens would be harder to treat.
Some of the same germs that affect them can affect humans — and some of the same antibiotics used to treat livestock are used to treat us.
So, overuse of those antibiotics could mean we’re no longer able to use those medications to treat infections in people.
This connection makes the increase in agricultural antibiotics a serious concern, experts said.
It also underlines the importance of trying to buy meat that is antibiotic-free when possible, experts told Healthline.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has listed several antibiotics as
The agency has recommended a reduction in the use of those drugs on farms.
The hope is that reduction will slow microbes’ adaptation and resistance to those drugs.
If their use isn’t reduced, the WHO and other agencies have warned that nearly all of today’s antibiotics will be unable to prevent or treat diseases in humans by 2050.
“Antibiotics are a precious part of the modern medical toolkit,” Dawn Undurraga, RD, a nutritionist with the Environmental Working Group and author who studies antibiotic resistance, told Healthline. “But they’ve also been taken for granted for a long time, both in human meds and animal agriculture.”
It’s important not to take antibiotics for granted and be more sparing in their use, she added.
“When you expose bacteria to drugs on a routine basis, especially low doses, they’re not all killed,” Undurraga explained. “And those that survive flourish and pass on their resistant genes.”
Those antibiotic-resistant microbes may spread. They might make their way, for instance, from farms to cities or towns through the water, air, farm workers, or the meat itself.
New estimates published last year concluded that more than 162,000 people are killed by antibiotic-resistant infections in the United States each year.
However, farmers face pressure to raise animals that are not only fat and healthy but are also not spreading deadly diseases in the short term that antibiotics might be able to head off.
That’s why one of the largest livestock drug manufacturers, Elanco, was warning farmers against letting one of their pigs be the “patient zero” in a future disease outbreak, according to the New York Times story.
The solution they pitched farmers was to give every one of their pigs antibiotics ahead of time — which would also have the side effect of making the pigs fatter.
The New York Times reported that Elanco said it stopped this marketing push after being asked about it by the newspaper.
But the episode highlighted the trade-offs farmers still face, despite growing calls for cutting back on antibiotics.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
But critics have said that rule has too many loopholes.
There have been signs of success, though.
Lena Brook, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) food campaigns, pointed to the chicken industry.
Chickens for meat raised in the United States without antibiotics accounted for 3 percent of the market in 2014. In 2018, 51 percent of them were antibiotic-free.
“It’s a really impressive shift,” Brook told Healthline.
She credits the change in large part to restaurant chains voluntarily setting corporate policies to end routine use of antibiotics in their supply chains, which the NRDC has been pushing through an antibiotic use scorecard.
“We’ve seen an impressive domino effect take hold over the last few years,” Brook said. “There’s a new normal that’s been developed in that industry, and we’d love to see the beef and pork industry take action as well.”
Part of that action might stem from the actions consumers take.
Some antibiotic-free meat might be more expensive than meat raised with antibiotics, but advocates say that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be out of reach for budget-minded consumers.
You just might have to shop a bit differently. The refrain is: Buy less so you can buy better.
In a report last year, Undurraga found that nearly 80 percent of supermarket meat had antibiotic-resistant bacteria in it.
“We don’t want to buy meat for our kids that is contributing to them not being able to be treated with meds,” she said.
She urges consumers to eat more plants and less meat and to use that money saved on extra meat to put toward higher-quality, more sustainable beef, pork, and chicken, if it’s available in your area.
“You can eat less of it and invest that money in better meat,” echoed Brook.
But she added it’s not just the everyday consumer who can make that shopping budget adjustment.
“I would also say the same thing if I were talking to a purchasing director at a school district or company,” she said.
New reporting suggests that farmers are still being urged by manufacturers to use antibiotics on animals beyond what’s recommended.
That’s despite advocacy and regulatory issues to curb the overuse of antibiotics so that they don’t become ineffective in treating human diseases.
Advocates suggest shoppers should avoid meats with antibiotics and instead buy less meat and use the money saved for higher quality meat, if it’s available.