Blog

Livestock, Antibiotics, and Pretend Play

By Steve Blackledge
Public Health Program Director

Everything I've read suggests that pretend play is important for my four-year-old. I have yet to come across a study finding that it's important for the meat industry.

Yet here's the North American Meat Institute with a video about antibiotics. Their video demonstrates how farming operations separate sick animals from the herd and give the sick ones an antibiotic shot. The video seems to ask, "What's so wrong with using antibiotics this way?" The answer, of course, is... (drumroll) nothing.

The industry is pretending that groups like mine would object to giving antibiotics to sick animals. In truth our critique is directed at the routine use of antibiotics, the daily deluge, the administering of antibiotics in feed and water to animals that aren't sick.

We work with a lot of groups on this issue, including Consumers Union, NRDC, Center for Food Safety, Keep Antibiotics Working, Friends of the Earth and more. I've yet to hear someone criticize the use of antibiotics when an animal gets an infection. The same is true of elected officials who work on this issue and the reports they release (start on page 50 for antibiotics and animal use).

Interestingly, the article that accompanies the video, which appears in Beef Daily, starts off by critiquing the burger joint Hardee's for its advertising of an all-natural burger. The author writes: "with advertising based on fear-driven marketing, consumers are left questioning whether a burger from places like McDonald’s or Burger King does in fact include... antibiotics."

The author, too, seems to miss the point. It's not whether antibiotic residues are in the burger. Assuming everyone follows the rules, the drugs have left the animal's system well before the slaughterhouse. Rather, the concern is the overuse of antibiotics in raising animals and the public health consequences. 

And this is cause for fear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 23,000 Americans die each year from the millions who get an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Says Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organization’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security: “Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,”

From where I sit, Hardee's is taking itself seriously as a "stakeholder." Hopefully next up is Subway. Seventy percent of antibiotics are sold for use on food animals. As more restaurant chains take action, livestock and poultry operations will need to stop their overuse of antibiotics. That will be a big win for public health. 

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