Op-Ed

Antibiotics in meat feed resistance in humans

More cattle should be raised free of antibiotics, like these in Oregon, to preserve the effectiveness of the lifesaving drugs.
More cattle should be raised free of antibiotics, like these in Oregon, to preserve the effectiveness of the lifesaving drugs. AP

Most people have taken antibiotics at one time or another, whether for a common nuisance such as an ear infection, or a potentially life-threatening illness such as pneumonia. For nearly a century, these miracle drugs have cured millions of people and paved the way for medical advancements including chemotherapy and surgical procedures.

It’s Public Health Week in Kentucky, and we should take this time to address one of the most pressing health threats of our time — antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotics are becoming less effective, mainly due to widespread overuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that at least 2 million Americans get sick each year from antibiotic-resistant infections, and 23,000 die as a direct result.

The saying “too much of a good thing” rings true for these medicines; the more we use antibiotics, the more that bacteria become resistant, and the less these life-saving medicines work. It has been in the news that Kentucky has the highest per capita antibiotic prescription rate in the country, but the misuse and overuse of antibiotics on livestock and poultry is an issue that needs more attention.

Approximately 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States that are considered important to human medicine are for use on food producing animals. Typically, the drugs are given to animals on a routine basis — even if they aren’t sick — to promote growth and to compensate for crowded, unsanitary conditions. That practice turns farms into breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can travel off the farms and into our communities.

There are some encouraging signs that the practice of routinely using antibiotics on otherwise healthy animals is waning within the meat industry. Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat company by revenue, recently announced that soon all chickens raised for its Tyson branded, retail offerings will be raised without antibiotics. Perdue Farms, another major chicken producer, has already made the transition away from antibiotic use in its Perdue branded chickens. These actions represent a major step toward protecting antibiotics and signal a welcome shift in the tides.

Consumer advocacy groups, including the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, have been urging fast food chains to no longer serve meat raised with the routine use of antibiotics. Some major restaurants have responded positively, which has helped spark changes from meat producers. Jim Perdue, Perdue Farms’ chairman, noted this dynamic when he said, “We work with Chick-fil-A for example. We supplied them. ... And then McDonald’s announced, and then Subway announced, and it’s like the cage-free thing — it’s like dominoes.”

Industry leaders including McDonald’s, Subway, Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, Chipotle, and Taco Bell have made various commitments to phase out the routine use of antibiotics from the chicken supply chain — Subway’s commitment was for all meats.

This movement toward more responsible antibiotic use in meat production appears to be good business for the restaurants and producers that have done it. More importantly, it’s helping protect these medicines for the future.

The marketplace actors moving in the right direction should be commended for their efforts. Let’s keep the momentum going during Public Health Week and urge more major restaurants to commit to no longer serving meat raised with medically important antibiotics.

Ben Chandler is president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which works to address the unmet health needs of Kentuckians by developing and influencing policy, improving access to care, reducing health risks and disparities, and promoting health equity.

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