We can be pretty certain that in the coming days we will hear this message over and over again "So what if most of the meat on our supermarket shelves is contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria? If you handle and cook your meat properly then a few bacteria shouldn’t be a problem; and if you get sick with an untreatable disease then it’s your own fault.' This is the kind of contemptible retort we can expect from the intensive meat industry lobby and its many trolls in response to new research by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which reveals high levels of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria on raw supermarket meat. Yet the “cook it properly and everything will be OK” spin is just Big Ag’s latest attempt to absolve itself of any responsibility for squandering one of the most important medical innovations of our time– and putting American lives at risk.
The use and misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a hot topic. Only earlier this month, the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer weighed into the debate and said that the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria risks a global health catastrophe that ranks alongside the threat of climate change or terrorism. It’s serious stuff.
When it comes to food and farming, unfortunately it often takes a major public health scare to bring about necessary changes in policy and practice. Unless you have been on another planet you will have no doubt heard the news of the horrific food poisoning outbreak in Europe which has killed 24 people and left almost 2,500 sick. At the time of writing the exact source of this E. coli outbreak is still not known, although almost all cases have occurred in Germany or were directly linked to travel there. But while the primary focus remains identifying the source of the outbreak and treating those affected, scientists have already expressed alarm at the fact that this particular strain of E. coli – E. coli O104:H4 – is resistant to several classes of important antibiotics. And the consensus is that one of the most likely reasons for the development of this multiple-resistant strain is the misuse of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming systems.
Many people are unaware that 80% of all antimicrobial drugs are administered to animals. Unfortunately, this fact shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; the Union of Concerned Scientists provided the same stat ten years ago in the 2001 report, Hogging It: Estimates of Antimicrobial Use in Livestock. Of course, industry has since ignored and/or rejected this figure every chance they’ve had. But despite the best efforts of Agribiz, as this week’s press release from Congresswoman Louise Slaughter reports, the FDA has officially confirmed the 80% figure; check it out. I should note that our friend Ralph Loglisci of the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future contacted the FDA back in December and was given the same numbers (he wrote an excellent post about this, which is absolutely worth reading). Nonetheless, it seems significant that the antibiotics stats have been released to and publicized by a congressperson. Very official, we think – and hopefully capable of capturing the nation’s attention.