The expression “food for thought” is often used proverbially more than literally, although results from FDA reports make it necessary to consider how our food and livestock are processed and put serious thought into the food we eat. To make the case immediately apparent, consider that four fifths of all antibiotic consumption in the USA is not human consumption; it’s consumed by farm animals. To quantify this statement, in 2011, 7.7 million pounds of antibiotics were consumed by American people, while 29.9 million pounds went into meat and poultry production.
The proportion of antibiotics fed to livestock is not a recent issue, it has been growing and the problems that arise from it have accumulated for over 50 years. An alarming development of bacteria that had grown drug resistant due to antibiotics in the livestock industry is MRSA (short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) which is a persistent threat to human health. Estimates indicate that MRSA kills 19,000 Americans each year, hospitalizes 370,000, and results in billions of dollars of additional health care spending. The intent of these statistics is not to frighten, but to raise awareness concerning administering millions of pounds of antibiotics annually to artificially boost animal growth. Maryn McKenna wrote a book chronicling the rise and danger of these superbugs (http://superbugthebook.com/).
What is important to note is that a vast majority of the provided antibiotics is not to target infections or better animal health. It is administered at a herd or flock wide basis through the animals water source or feed to promote growth and weight gain, as well as to preventatively help livestock survive harsh farm and living conditions. This is one reason why antibiotics are used, another is for therapy. Therapy is used when farm animals exhibit clinical diseases, and drugs can be an effective way to prevent catastrophic health risks that could be detrimental to the agricultural sector.
Administering antibiotics to animals is not an inherently bad thing to do, although it can become detrimental if done without caution and concern. The FDA’s report on the application of antimicrobial drugs in industry warns that “the development of resistance to this important class of drugs, and the resulting loss of their effectiveness as antimicrobial therapies, poses a serious public health threat”. In this article, the main point is not to suggest entirely eliminating antibiotic consumption in the livestock industry, but to manage it judiciously by targeting specific diseases. Another significant argument is that farmers and food corporations should “voluntarily” withdraw from using drugs which have a functional similarity to drugs used in humans, since this would reduce the concern for transmitting resistive bacteria on to humans through our food. Use of antibiotics for livestock growth promotion has been banned by many European countries, as they have determined that similar investment in more food resulted in the same growth yields without the additional antibiotic resistance generation.
It is evident that we can no longer take how our food is produced for granted. The expression food for thought is no longer some overused metaphor, it is a reality.