By Janeal Yancey, contributing blogger, Mom at The Meat Counter

Editor’s Note: This week, USFRA will feature a 2-part blog series on antibiotics and food authored by Janeal Yancey, Ph. D Meat Science, University of Arkansas and author of Mom at The Meat Counter

To read Part I of this series, click here.

Consumers should not be concerned about the meat they consume. When handled and cooked properly, our meat is safe. These are a number of questions about antibiotics in the meat supply: residues vs resistance – and what exactly that all means. I’ve outlined some Q&A on the topic that may help to clear some things up.

Why are animals given antibiotics?  There are three reasons why animals are given antibiotics.

  1. The most obvious reason is that animals are given antibiotics when they are sick or injured to fight infection.  Most people agree that it would be inhumane to withhold a drug from a sick animal and allow it to suffer. Even organic farms and antibiotic-free farms have a protocol in place to treat a sick animal and remove it from their herd.
  2. Sometimes animals are given antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick.  Just like kids, young animals are prone to infection. In some farms, animals live very close to one another and they are not very clean creatures (you just can’t teach a piglet to wash his hooves), so if one gets sick, they could all get sick very quickly. , This could detrimental to an entire herd, so some farms choose to feed a low level of antibiotics to prevent disease.

Some antibiotics are given to improve how fast and efficiently animals grow. This is probably the most controversial reason to give animals antibiotics. Animals live in symbiotic relationships with several types of microorganisms. (Cows use microorganisms in their stomachs to digest grains, grass and hay). When antibiotics are given to promote growth, the farmer is trying to maximize the good bacteria in their bodies to help them grow more efficiently. The antibiotics that are used to help animals grow are different from the ones used to treat sick animals.  In an effort minimize any future risk of antibiotic treatment failure in humans, antibiotics important to human medicine used for growth purposes in food animals will be eliminated within three to four years in accordance with the FDA Guidance 209 and 213 (FDA). 

How do bacteria become resistant to antibiotics? Bacteria are everywhere, and there are millions of species, strains, and serotypes… all fancy ways of saying ‘different’ bacteria. Bacteria have a genetic code, just like humans, and they change and evolve with each generation. Unlike humans, they multiply at crazy-fast rates, so their genes can change at fast rates. When you introduce something to kill the bacteria like antibiotics, most of them die, but a few live. The ones that live may have had something in their genetic code that allowed them to survive the antibiotic treatment. All the other bacteria are gone, so that leaves more room and food for the left over bacteria to grow. When they grow, they pass their antibiotic-resistant genes to the next generations. Eventually, those antibiotic-resistant bacteria are spread around, and found all over the place. We have to learn to fight them in different ways. A study from 2003-2004 found that MRSA (the bacteria my daughter fought) was in 1.5% of American noses. That was 8 years ago, and the bacteria have been spreading since then, so the numbers are probably larger now.

Are antibiotic-resistant bacteria in my food and how did they get there?  Yep. Antibiotic –resistant bacteria are in our food supply. They are everywhere. Our food is handled by several different people and goes through several steps to get to our plates, and bacteria can be introduced at any of those steps.

Can it make me and my family sick?  There are some forms of dangerous food borne pathogens like Salmonella and E.coli that have developed some resistance to antibiotics. That means that if you get one of these bacterial infections in your gut, it will be harder for doctors to help you fight them. But, even the non-resistant forms of these bacteria are very dangerous and can make you very, very sick.

What about buying meat from animals that have not been given antibiotics?  There are companies and farms that offer meat from animals that have never been given antibiotics. I’ve talked about such programs in a previous blog post. If you choose to buy those products because you want to support the practice of never giving animals antibiotics, that’s fine, but you should know that meat from these farms are not guaranteed to be free from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The meat is not any safer than the meat that does not make that claim. A recent study found that the levels of Staphylococcus aureus and MRSA in pork were the same regardless of it being from pig farms that did not use antibiotics.

Here is a list of a few more resources if you are interested.