Humans do not take a constant dosage of antibiotics for “preventative” measures, so why does our food?

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report detailing the rise of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” in the United States and the causes behind it. One factor, the report states, is the meat industry and its extensive use of antibiotics in food products.

According to the report, at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year in the United States.

Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013” reveals how antibiotic resistance spreads via the drug-happy meat industry: animals are fed antibiotics and develop resistant bacteria; drug-resistant bacteria can remain on meat and can pass to humans when meat is not handled or cooked properly; fertilizer and water runoff containing animal feces and drug-resistant bacteria is used on food crops, which are consumed by humans, and so on.

The study points out, “Simply using antibiotics creates resistance. These drugs should only be used to treat infections.” However, the same antibiotics used to treat humans have been given to healthy animals to make them grow unnaturally faster and larger and to allow them to exist in unhygienic conditions.

In 2011, 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for meat and poultry production in the US, compared to 7.7 million pounds sold for the treatment of sick people, PEW reports.

Yet, industry members like the National Pork Producers Council still insist that their rampant use of antibiotics is safe, listing antibiotics as one of the “tools for healthy animals.” Their website even states that, “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been no proven link to antibiotic treatment failure in humans due to antibiotic use in animals.

Antibiotic resistance is a worldwide problem that can spread quickly and easily across continents. At least 23,000 people die each year in the US from antibiotic-resistant infections, and many others die from conditions complicated by antibiotic-resistant infection, the CDC reports.

On the meat industry’s use of antibiotics, the report states that “The use of antibiotics for promoting growth is not necessary, and the practice should be phased out.” The report also states that there is evidence that more antibiotics are used in food production than are used directly in humans. The CDC reports:

Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food-producing animals can harm public health through the following sequence of events:

  • Use of antibiotics in food-producing animals allows antibiotic-resistant bacteria to thrive while susceptible bacteria are suppressed or die.
  • Resistant bacteria can be transmitted from food-producing animals to humans through the food supply.
  • Resistant bacteria can cause infections in humans.
  • Infections caused by resistant bacteria can result in adverse health consequences for humans.

Two bacteria commonly transmitted through food are Salmonella and Campylobacter. Drug-resistant Campylobacter causes 310,000 infections a year, 13,000 hospitalizations, and 120 deaths in the US. Drug-resistant, non-typhoidal Salmonella causes 100,000 infections per year, while non-typhoidal Salmonella causes 1.2 million infections, 23,000 hospitalizations, and 450 deaths.

The CDC also reports that the rates of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) have increased “rapidly” among the general population while the cases of MRSA contracted in hospitals has declined. The report does not link MRSA to contaminated livestock; however, a recent study by the University of Iowa found MRSA in 8.5 percent of pigs on conventional farms and none in pigs on antibiotic-free farms, Mother Jones reports.

Another study recently released by the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that people living near pig farms or agricultural fields fertilized with pig manure had a greater chance of contracting MRSA. According to Scientific American, previous research shows that livestock workers are also at greater risk of contracting MRSA, compared to the general population.

In addition to posing a worldwide human health threat, administering antibiotics to farm animals is an ethical issue. Farms have historically used antibiotics not only to promote unnatural growth in animals but as a preventative regimen, purportedly to “keep animals healthy and productive.” But the use of antibiotics facilitates the perpetuation of the meat industry’s often inhumane and unsanitary confinement of animals.

The industry is notorious for such inhumane practices as cramming pregnant pigs into gestation crates, which essentially immobilize them, forcing them to “endure a cycle of repeated impregnation.” The gestation cages are approximately 2 feet wide, so that the animals are unable to even turn around.

Male piglets are castrated with no anesthesia and tossed into a pile after being cut. A Humane Society video documents piglets being drop kicked and thrown in the air by workers. Mother pigs were kicked and punched, and sick pigs were left to suffer.

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are non-sustainable, inhumane factory farms that create big business. Industrial-sized livestock operations can house anywhere from hundreds to millions of animals, kept in small and confined spaces where disease is easily spread. The industry not only profits from inhumane practices, but poses a serious health threat to the entire world.

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.