You Can Thank Antibiotics for All the Cheap Meat

CC BY 2.0. STS -- Cattle feedlot

Farmers pump livestock full of drugs to keep them 'healthy' and fatten them up quickly. Unfortunately this could be a global death sentence.

In her 2015 TED talk, journalist and author Maryn McKenna tells the tragic story of her 30-year-old great-uncle who died from an infection in a New York hospital in 1940, just three years before penicillin became available. Those were times when people died from injuries and the infections that ensued, not lifestyle diseases like cancer and heart disease. Now, we take for granted the idea that antibiotics can protect us from the simplest things.

This is going to change, McKenna warns. We are poised at the edge of the post-antibiotic era, when drugs will no longer be effective and routine procedures, like heart surgery, C-sections, joint replacements, or anything that "opens the hidden spaces of the body," could be a thing of the past. Already 50,000 people die in the United States and Europe every year from antibiotic-resistant infections. One British study estimates that, unless we get antibiotic use under control by 2050, the death toll will be 10 million people per year. This is a horrifying future to consider.

McKenna, who's written a book called "Superbug," gives several solutions in her talk, including technological data harvesting and gatekeeping to minimize prescriptions, as well as changes to personal habits, such as refusing an unnecessary prescription; but these solutions do little to address the main driver behind antibiotic resistance – the animal agriculture industry.

Meat, dairy, and farmed fish are responsible for using 80 percent of all antibiotics in the United States, totaling 34 million pounds a year. This is four times more than what’s used for human health. And it’s not the only country doing this: Brazil, India, China, and Germany all join the U.S. in the top five.

McKenna argues that drugs play a greater role in producing cheap meat than do genetics, precise nutrition, or the design of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Antibiotics are used to ward off the infections that are rampant in such unhealthy, filthy, and tight living conditions; and they are also used to fatten animals rapidly. Increasing growth speeds production and reduces likelihood of errors.

The result? Whole chickens that go on sale for 69 cents a pound or a buck more for boneless breasts. This is meat so cheap that even poor families can afford to put it on the table every day. Little do they know that they’re clearing the way for their own – and everyone else’s – eventual demise.

This works in the following way, as described by Molly Anderson, a professor food studies at Middlebury College, in The Reducetarian Solution:

“One of the most serious health impacts of work in livestock operations has only recently been brought to light: growing incidence of antibiotic resistance (ABR) due to the practice of adding low doses of common antibiotics to the feed. Bacteria mutate into resistant strains and become prevalent in the soil and feeding area. Therefore, simple infections that previously could be treated with common antibiotics are resistant even to combinations of antibiotics.”

While meat production workers are most susceptible to mutations, bacteria resistance is everyone’s problem. Bacteria can be transported by human contact, food, water, wind, or air.

We all need to take a stance against animal products raised with antibiotics. Ideally, these drugs should be banned for agricultural use unless absolutely needed, but until that happens, we should be asking every restaurant and supermarket where their meat comes from and how it is raised. Better yet, avoid consuming animal products altogether and make your reasons be known. It seems like a small sacrifice when you consider the long-term implications of continuing to devour meat on the scale that we currently do.