It’s difficult to overstate the importance of antibiotics in modern medicine. By blocking the spread of infection-causing bacteria, antibiotics make surgery, chemotherapy and many other medical procedures possible. By killing infectious diseases like tuberculosis, antibiotics save millions of lives each year.
But at least as far back as 1945, health experts have warned that overusing antibiotics could lead to so-called “superbugs,” or sickness-causing bacteria that are resistant to antibacterial drugs. “Bacteria are wily, and they evolve very quickly,” says Lena Brook, a food safety and policy expert with the non-profit National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “So we always knew we were operating on a limited timeframe in terms of an antibiotic’s effectiveness.”
“We understood the limitations, but for a long time we assumed there’d always be another drug, and so this wouldn’t be a big deal,” says Dr. Lance Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University. “But now we’re seeing new bacteria that have built up resistance to nearly all our drugs.”
The threat posed by these antibiotic-resistant bacteria is not theoretical, and it is not a problem for future generations. This year, at least 2 million Americans will be infected with drug-resistant bacteria and 23,000 will die, CDC data show. According to Jean Whichard, who heads the CDC’s National Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance Laboratory, antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing public health problems. “Illnesses that were once easily treatable with antibiotics are becoming more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat,” Whichard says.
What does all this have to do with your food? “Antibiotics are used heavily in animal agriculture, mostly to encourage growth and to compensate for the stressful, unsanitary conditions these animals live in,” the NRDC’s Brook explains. This heavy antibiotic use accelerates the speed at which bacteria evolve and develop drug resistance. (Antibiotics are also used to treat some produce and farmed fish. “But we don’t have a good handle on how much that’s threatening human health,” Price adds.)
Once these drug-resistant bacteria exist, there are many ways for them to spread to people, Brook says. Eating bacteria-riddled meat or poultry is one way. These bacteria can also move from animals to the general public via air, soil, water or people who work on farms and around the animals, she explains.
Experts are also concerned about the overuse of antibiotics in medical settings. (CDC researchers estimate a third of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary.) But 70% of all antibiotics that are important to human medicine go toward livestock production, according to the FDA. And that figure is going up, not down. Sales and distribution of medically important antibiotics for use in food-producing animals jumped 23% between 2009 and 2014, the FDA estimates.
The CDC’s Whichard says new government regulations—set to take effect in January 2017—will curb the use of medically important antibiotics in food animals unless there’s a therapeutic need. But Price says the new regulations contain loopholes that could allow food producers to keep using antibiotics in much the same way they have in the past.
So what can you do about this? At the supermarket and at restaurants, demand antibiotic-free meat. “Buy animal products labeled ‘raised without antibiotics,’ ” Price advises. Brook agrees, and highlights a recent NRDC report that graded major restaurant chains based on their use of antibiotic-laden meat or poultry. Only two—Panera Bread and Chipotle—received “A” grades. “Chipotle and Panera have really taken this issue mainstream and are setting a new course for the fast food and fast casual industry when it comes to antibiotic safety,” she says.
Apart from making a statement with your food purchases, Price says the public needs to demand that their leaders take action on this issue. “Despite all the unequivocal evidence showing harm to human health, the U.S. has been lagging behind Europe on this issue from a regulatory standpoint,” he says. FDA and USDA have taken “baby steps” toward correcting the problem of antibiotic overuse in food production, he says. “But we should be running toward our goal.”
He adds: “We’re not going to fall off the cliff all at once. But unless we do something, we’re going to return to a time where a child gets a scrape and dies of an infection. This is something we should all be fighting to stop.”