Bacon, With A Side Of Superbugs?
Every year, farm animals swallow an estimated 30 million pounds of antibiotics before we swallow them. Many of these medications are the very same type your doctor might prescribe—and health experts fear if these meds are used in animals, their ability to fight your infection will diminish.
Now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking steps to cut back on this barnyard drug problem. Here’s what you need to know about the ruling, and how to protect yourself in the meantime.
Wait—why is my meat drugged?
Farm animals such as cows, chickens, and pigs sometimes receive antibiotics when they’re sick. But for reasons scientists don’t completely understand, low doses of these drugs also help livestock grow larger and eat less. So, farmers routinely—and legally—add them to animal feed or water to produce more meat for less money. They can buy these drugs over-the-counter without a veterinarian’s prescription.
What’s the problem with this?
Trace amounts of antibiotics in meat can kill off some of the healthy bacteria in your digestive system, says internist and nutritionist John La Puma, M.D. But agricultural use of antibiotics contributes to an even bigger problem. Instead of killing off harmful bacteria, the low doses might give bugs time to adapt and grow stronger. The result is a public health crisis: treatment-resistant bacteria—or superbugs our existing antibiotics can’t kill.
What is the FDA doing to change it?
The FDA’s new ruling asks animal drug companies to change the labels on some antibiotics. The updates will mean farmers can only use these drugs to prevent or treat diseases—and they’ll need a veterinarian’s oversight to do it.
The changes will take place over the next three years. But they’re voluntary for the drug companies—meaning time will tell how well they work, says Pascal Imperato, M.D., M.P.H., dean of the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate.
Right now, experts don’t really know how much of the problem with antibiotic resistance is due to use in agriculture and how much is due to other factors, such as misuse of antibiotics in humans. But when European countries have banned antibiotic use in animals, they’ve seen slowdowns in the growth of treatment-resistant bacteria, says Richard Whitley, M.D., an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Alabama.
What should I do in the meantime?
To skip the side of penicillin, buy certified organic meat or meat marked “no antibiotics administered/USDA process verified.” But be wary of other label claims, like “antibiotic-free” and “no antibiotic residue”—they’re not regulated and might not mean anything at all, Dr. La Puma says.
You can also stop the spread of superbugs by using antibiotics wisely. Don’t demand a prescription when your doctor says you have a viral infection like the flu, Dr. Imperato advises. And definitely don’t share extra drugs. Taking less than a full course of antibiotics or using old, weakened pills can also breed-resistant bacteria.