I wasn’t sure that the meat and dairy industry could do anything more to wreck human health, but I was wrong. If there was an award for creative ways to ensure human extinction is an imminent threat, the meat and dairy industry would take the cake. They already do their darnedest to contribute the most greenhouse gas emissions to climate change as well as cut down large swaths of forests to compound the effects. The meat and dairy industry uses as much fresh water as possible, and they make sure to pollute the water they don’t use as well. Meat and dairy products are implicated (if not the major cause) of major chronic conditions like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis, to name just a few. But it seems they’ve become dissatisfied with only contributing to the ill-health of meat consumers…they’ve now widened their net to afflict everyone, even those who do their best to abstain from meat, dairy, and eggs.
How has the meat and dairy industry contributed to antibiotic resistance, a problem so serious that the World Health Organization declared it “threatens the achievements of modern medicine”?* According to the FDA, animal agriculture consumes 80% of all antibiotics administered in the U.S.**** In 2009, it was reported by the FDA that farmers used 30 million pounds of antibiotics, and the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 24 million pounds are used simply to make the animals grow faster…and so are used unnecessarily.**
In factory farm settings, animals (cows, pigs, chickens) are crowded into filthy conditions. In some cases they aren’t allowed to move to keep them from burning calories, and they stand in their own fecal matter. The close quarters create an ideal breeding ground for diseases, which spread rampantly between animals.** Chickens frequently share cages with their dead brothers and sisters who couldn’t survive the suffering. The chronic stress and fear that these animals endure 24/7 compromises their immune system, just like in humans. Farmers have to keep animals on a feed laced with antibiotics, or administer multiple vaccines to keep them alive long enough to get big enough to slaughter. Their lives are already much shorter than they would be in nature, but the poor animals can barely live for the months it takes to reach slaughter weight.
The Reuters investigation (cited at end) found that in every instance of antibiotic use they identified, the dosages were sub-therapeutic. Most people are warned by their pharmacist or physician not to use antibiotics extraneously and to take the proper prescribed dose as well as finish the prescription. We know that when we fail to finish the full dose of antibiotics, the strongest bacteria may be left standing at the end of the treatment…ready to multiply and attack with a vengeance! Continually administering low levels of antibiotics, a common practice, is even more conducive to the growth of superbugs: only the stronger, hardier bacteria survive to multiply and give rise to even hardier offspring. Since bacteria have such a short lifespan, their evolutionary timetable is much faster than we realize. It’s survival of the fittest in fast-forward.
How can we have such respect toward doctors and take their advice seriously because we care about ourselves, but not realize we are undermining our efforts toward maintaining good health by consuming meat tainted with drugs, bacteria, carcinogens and dyes (poultry meat frequently gets re-colored to look more appealing)? We are what we eat! Our body metabolizes the components of food, breaking it down into the building blocks that it then synthesizes into our cells. These cells become our muscles, fat, skeleton, organs, everything! The quality of the food you eat is the most important thing that you hold in your control!
You are not simply a chute that passes everything through..your digestive organs are extremely permeable. Digestion actually starts with chewing, and your saliva will be encompassing bacteria that exists in your food as you eat. Just think about the superbugs swimming in your body!
“The use of antibiotics in this context is particularly concerning from a public-health perspective because it has been repeatedly demonstrated that use of these drugs in the animal-production setting speeds the selection for bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics,” explains Keeve Nachman, PhD, assistant scientist and director of the Farming for the Future program at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.**
Humans are exposed to the antimicrobial chemicals and the superbugs that result from antibiotic residue or superbugs on meat or in milk, runoff from factory farms that contaminate water, and from animal waste that gets pelletized and bagged to be sold as compost or fertilizer.**
The instances of improper handling of meat when cooking, and cross-contamination of vegetables from meat is very common in the ordinary kitchen or food establishment. I worked at Subway a year ago, and I speak from experience when I say that restaurants aren’t as careful as you would hope. I was told to fudge the temperatures I recorded in our food log for the health inspector. Meat, egg, and dairy products breed bacteria when they get too warm, but I’d get fired if I threw out the warm meat or sauces…it would impinge on the profits! According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) 430,000 people in the U.S. become ill from food-borne bacteria that resist conventional antibiotics. At least 23,000 people die annually from infections resistant to antibiotics.*
E. coli is a common food-borne bacteria. I first learned of it from the documentary Food, Inc. which featured Barbara Kowalcyk, a mother who lost her 2 year old son to complications due to E.Coli O157:H7 infection. Like most acute illnesses from bacteria and viruses, the youngest and the oldest are those most at risk of death. Our current cattle raising practices on factory farms promote the growth of this bacteria, according to Science journal, “promote the growth of E. coli that can survive the acidity of the human stomach and cause intestinal illness.”*****Cows are meant to eat grass, but are fed a diet of cheap, govt. subsidized corn, which intensifies the acidity of the cows stomach acids. Like low levels of antibiotics, only the strongest bacteria survive this environment and then go on to infect humans. The stronger strain of E.Coli is now able to survive the strong stomach acids of humans. Though cooking also destroys the bacteria, hamburgers that contain pink meat can contain live E.coli bacteria…*****how many of you love a medium-rare steak? Or a juicy hamburger? A typical ground up hamburger patty can contain flesh from hundreds of cows, increasing your risk of disease!
“In 1976, a study by microbiologist Stuart Levy showed that potentially deadly bacteria in poultry were developing resistance to tetracyclines and other antibiotics. The resistant bacteria, E. Coli, were then moving from poultry to people.”*
Dieticians from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed data available from a govt. program, The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, which tracks food-borne diseases. Each year, the lesser-known govt. program’s researchers buy samples of meat from supermarkets nationwide and tests them for bacterial residues. According to the dieticians from EWG: 69% of pork samples, 55% beef samples, 39% of chicken samples, and a whopping 81% of turkey samples (think about that this Thanksgiving!) tested positive for antibiotic-resistant bacteria!!!*** I believe data is from 2011, and the article I am referencing (cited at end) was written in 2013. Believe it or not, this is current…and alarming!
Beyond the medical emergency that antibiotic resistant superbugs herald, treating antibiotic resistant diseases are a drain on our already strained healthcare system. For example, treating strains of MRSA usually require an additional 14 days in the hospital and cost 5x as much as treating the strain that is treatable with antibiotics.**As of right now, current legislation, “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals” by the FDA suggests voluntary compliance from the industry to limit antibiotic use.**
Right now, the FDA doesn’t plan to gather data about antibiotic use on farms until 2016. Until then, according to a spokesperson from the agency, “none of us have an idea first hand of what’s going on” at the farm-level.*
I apologize for the length of this article, there’s just a lot to chew on (sorry, 🙂 pun intended!) and everyone needs to know!
*Grow, Brian; Huffstutter, P.J.; Erman, Michael. Reuters Investigates “Farmaceuticals: The drugs fed to farm animals and the risks posed to humans“, Sept. 15, 2014.
**Zerbe, Leah. Rodale News: “Factory Farms Use 30 Million Pounds of Antibiotics a Year (and You’re Eating Some of It)”, Dec. 21, 2010.
***Main, Emily. Prevention: “How Dirty is Your Meat?“, April 2013.
****Bottemillar, Helena. Food Safety News: “Most U.S. Antibiotics Go to Animal Agriculture”, Feb. 24, 2011.
*****Segelken, Roger. Cornell University, Cornell Chronicle “Simple change in cattle diets could cut E.coli infection“, Sept. 8, 1998. (I know this is old, but more current sources corroborate these findings, such as Food, Inc.)