Antibiotics in our Food: Policy and Purchasing for Safer Options

August 27, 2013

Antibiotics given to livestock affect school meals, too.

by Adriana Yepez, HSC Intern

Ever since the discovery of the first antibiotic in 1928 by Sir Alexander Fleming, the world of medicine has radically changed, with penicillin and other antibiotics successfully improving the recovery rate of ill patients. But with production of antibiotics booming — to about 38 million pounds in 2011, 80 percent is now going to meat and livestock production.

It is surprising to find out that human consumers only account for 20 percent of antibiotic sales. What is even more unsettling is that antibiotics are often fed to animals at low levels in order to speed up growth and prevent diseases that are caused by living in dangerously unhealthy close quarters.

The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other leading medical groups found that overuse and misuse of these drugs are making bacteria more resistant and creating new strains of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is especially crucial when these antibiotics are finding their way to young children through school meals. Children, whose immune systems are sensitive to antibiotic resistance, recover less easily from illnesses if they continuously ingest low levels of antibiotics. This becomes a problem when the meat dishes in their school lunches also come from a food company that practices drug misuse on their livestock.

Other administrations, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Centers for Disease Control, have testified that there is a positive correlation between routine, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production and the crisis of antibiotic resistance in humans, making it harder for adults and children alike to respond to antibiotic treatment.

This summer, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act, a bipartisan bill that would eliminate certain antibiotic-related practices that contribute to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria and endanger human health. The legislation is co-sponsored by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jack Reed (D-RI), Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA).

Laura Rogers, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ initiative to reduce antibiotic overuse on industrial farms, said, “Their legislation is balanced yet comprehensive: It eliminates the use of medically important antibiotics for food production purposes but allows these drugs to be administered to sick animals and to keep them from infecting others. In addition, it does not change the way farmers can use those antibiotics that are not also important in human medicine.” The bill will regulate antibiotic use by food and drug companies by making sure that antibiotics are sold and used for the correct purposes. It will also restrict companies from overusing antibiotics on their livestock, ultimately resulting in cleaner meat and poultry.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has also made an effort to help. In November of 2011, CPS purchased 1.2 million pounds of local, whole-muscle chicken raised without antibiotics from Miller Poultry. This makes CPS the largest district to serve antibiotic-free chicken and will encourage schools to serve more meals made from scratch. Students have the opportunity to eat freshly cooked chicken with their meals instead of the frozen nuggets that only need to be warmed up when served.

With these combined efforts, awareness of the issue of antibiotic-free practices has increased and action has taken place to bring more natural meat and chicken to the table, overall improving the health and well-being of the general public.

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Special thanks to HSC intern Adriana for writing this blog post!