The Antibiotic Re-Think

Foregoing antibiotics in farm animals has become a recent trend among the uber health conscious, now trickling down to the masses. McDonald’s announced this month that the company is making moves to phase out their use of chickens grown on human antibiotics within the next two years. This is a huge step in the food industry, especially for the United State’s largest restaurant chain. It recognizes that consumers are looking for an industry overhaul in terms of antibiotics, and it also takes on some responsibility for the rampant antibiotic use currently occurring. A worrisome study from the Center for Disease Control found that in one year approximately half a million Americans were infected with an antibiotic-resistant bacteria and at least 29,000 of those people died from the bacterial infection. This is a direct effect of overuse of antibiotics, and the main reason why many of us are trying to avoid purchasing meat coming from animals raised on antibiotics. In 2013 several government groups testified to Congress on the link between general use of antibiotics in livestock and antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections found in humans.

In some cases, antibiotics are given to livestock to prevent or treat common infections. In most instances, however, antibiotics are used to promote faster growth on less feed; the metabolic reasoning for this has yet to be fully elucidated. The good news: We do not need to worry about ingesting antibiotics when eating animal food products, as recently proven by the FDA. The bad news: The bacteria resistant to the antibiotics can make their way off the farm via water, soil, and animal products which can affect the general environment as well as the consumer. So while this would insinuate that McDonald’s decision to ban human antibiotics would be a severe change for antibiotic use in poultry across the country, unfortunately this is only partially true. The restaurant chain is only planning on cutting out human antibiotics, so this still allows the usage of other antibiotics. These non-human antibiotics will continue to create resistant bacteria, and it cannot be said with any level of certainty that the resistance will not affect human health.

But this is not to say that the new policy would be ineffective, it is still a marked improvement and will go a long way help industry standards. Given that McDonald’s is a long-standing behemoth in American food culture, it is likely that other fast food chains will also follow in its footsteps. In 2014 McDonald’s alone purchased approximately 4 percent of the 39 billion pounds of chicken produced in the United States, so this announcement is not insignificant by any means. Because, despite the criticism that the decision is not drastic enough, in the urgent fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria every effort is important. Even if the regular use of antibiotics is not being completely eliminated, there are still less antibiotics about to be given to livestock, and that is something to be excited about. Current antibiotic use in livestock is at an all-time high, with sales continuing to increase each year. However, it cannot be forgotten that there remains more to do, including phasing out species-specific antibiotics unless given for therapeutic treatment. If we expect to remain dependent on antibiotics for treating life-threatening infections, then we must completely re-think livestock antibiotic use.