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Antibiotics and Superbugs in Your Food?

How worried should I be about the antibiotics used in livestock? I've heard that they can endanger human health, but I don't understand how. What should I do to minimize my family's exposure?

A
Answer (Published 9/26/2013)

I'm worried about what's happening in our food supply, even though I don't eat meat or poultry, and I think you should be worried too. The routine use of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease among the 8.9 billion animals raised in horrific factory-farm conditions has already created a huge threat to human health. An astounding 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States in 2011 were for use in livestock; only 20 percent went to treat sick people. Here's the problem: the low levels of antibiotics fed to animals destined for the dinner table result in the development of resistance to these medications among bacteria, and the resistant bugs can cause infections in humans that are more and more difficult to treat.

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Here's one dramatic example of how serious this problem is: the Infectious Disease Society of America reports that just one organism – methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) kills more Americans every year than emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease, and homicide combined.

An analysis of data collected by the federal government and published in February 2013 revealed that up to 81 percent of the ground turkey sold in supermarkets may harbor antibiotic-resistant superbugs. This also holds true for 69 percent of pork chops tested, 55 percent of ground beef, and 39 percent of chicken breasts, wings or thighs.

The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit, noted that in 2011 government-collected supermarket meat samples harbored significant amounts of the superbug versions of Salmonella and Campylobacter, two organisms that together cause 3.6 million cases of food poisoning a year.  What's more, the EWG pointed out that 53 percent of raw chicken samples collected in 2011 were "tainted with an antibiotic-resistant form of Escherichia coli (E. coli), a microbe that normally inhabits feces. Certain strains of E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections and pneumonia." The EWG website (www.ewg.org) includes compelling graphics that illustrate the extent of the problem.

Given the threat to human health that the use of antibiotics in livestock poses, you might think that we would be taking steps to curtail it, but that's not happening. In an opinion piece published in the New York Times in March 2013, former FDA commissioner David A. Kessler wrote that "we have more than enough scientific evidence to justify curbing the rampant use of antibiotics for livestock, yet the food and drug industries are not only fighting proposed legislation to reduce these practices, they also oppose collecting the data. Unfortunately, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, as well as the FDA, are aiding and abetting them."

There's another, less obvious risk here. Regularly consuming antibiotic residues in meat may derange your normal gut microbiota - the population of beneficial bacteria not only needed for normal digestion - but, as we are learning, critically important in overall health.

There's only one way to minimize your exposure to superbugs in the meat you eat and avoid antibiotics you don't need: buy organically raised beef or other animal products that are certified drug-free.

I urge you also to write your representatives in Congress to ask for action on this issue. You can find their names and contact information at http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/; to get this information about your senators, go to http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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