Normative Narratives

Transparency Thursday: Mystery Meat? The Mystery’s Out, It’s Pumped Full of Antibiotics

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A disturbing analysis of FDA research reveals interesting facts about the meat we eat. Most people love meat because it is delicious, but there are a number of reasons to reconsider your food choices. For environmental reasons, eating meat is not “sustainable”. Animals require feed which raises the cost of crops such as corn. In addition, the packaging, transferring, and storing of meat products are all more energy intensive than for an equivalent amount of vegetables (and therefore release more greenhouse gases).

But there are also health related reasons to watch what meat you eat, the rampant use of antibiotics on the animals we eat:

“Note that that while human antibiotic use has leveled off at below 8 billion pounds annually, livestock farms have been sucking in more and more of the drugs each year—and consumption reached a record nearly 29.9 billion pounds in 2011. To put it another way, the livestock industry is now consuming nearly four-fifths of the antibiotics used in the US, and its appetite for them is growing.”

Not only is eating the antibiotics unhealthy for humans, but regularly treating animals with antibiotics leads to drug-resistant bacteria in the food we eat.

“Not surprisingly, when you cram animals together by the thousands and dose them daily with antibiotics, the bacteria that live on and in the animals adapt and develop resistance to those bacteria killers.”

Here are a few highlights from Pew Charitable Trust’s analysis of the FDA report:

“• Of the Salmonella on ground turkey, about 78% were resistant to at least one antibiotic and half of the bacteria were resistant to three or more. These figures are up compared to 2010.

• Nearly three-quarters of the Salmonella found on retail chicken breast were resistant to at least one antibiotic. About 12% of retail chicken breast and ground turkey samples were contaminated with Salmonella.

• Resistance to tetracycline [an antibiotic] is up among Campylobacter on retail chicken. About 95% of chicken products were contaminated with Campylobacter, and nearly half of those bacteria were resistant to tetracyclines. This reflects an increase over last year and 2002.”

Unfortunately, just attempting to eat antibiotic free meat is often not enough. Producer labels are often confusing and may not mean what you think they do. The following is an excerpt from the executive summary of a consumer reports analysis of what different labels mean (the full report can be found here):

“Consumer Reports shoppers found a wide array of labels related to antibiotic use, such as “never ever given antibiotics,” “humanely raised on family farms without antibiotics,” “organic,” and “grassfed.” Consumer Reports analyzed the various labels and concluded that most of them are at least somewhat useful to consumers. Consumers can always rely on the “organic” label, since organic rules ban antibiotic use in livestock. In addition, consumers can generally rely on most labels that contain the words “no antibiotics” or “raised without antibiotics” especially if it is “USDA process Verified” (meaning that the USDA has checked up to see whether the producer is actually doing what it claims).

But Consumer Reports shoppers found a few labels that consumers should not rely upon as indicators that a product has truly had no antibiotics throughout the growing process. They include “natural,” “antibiotic-free,” “no antibiotic residues,” and “no antibiotic growth promotants.” “Natural” means only that the product contains no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed, according to the USDa. antibiotics can in fact be used in the raising of “natural” meat and poultry. The terms “antibiotic-free” and “no antibiotic residues” are terms that the USDa does not approve for use on meat and poultry, so their meaning is uncertain, and they should not appear in the marketplace.

The label “no antibiotic growth promotants,” also not USDA-approved, is not helpful because the animal still could have been given antibiotics on a daily basis to prevent disease (just not forgrowth promotion). “grassfed” labels, usually found on beef, can also be useful, but require close scrutiny. If they are coupled with the “organic” label, consumers can be sure the cow was raised without antibiotics. If “grassfed” appears alone, however, antibiotics might have been given. “american grassfed” and “Food alliance grassfed” labels also indicate that in addition to having been raised on grass, the animal in question received no antibiotics, but those products are available in very few stores.”

So there you have it. Eating antibiotic treated meat every once in a while is probably unavoidable if you’re a person on the go. However, it would be in your best interest to buy antibiotic free meat whenever you get the chance. It may cost a little bit more in the short run, but it will save you time, money, and suffering if it allows you to avoid an illness. Also, be sure you know exactly what the label on your product means, or you may be paying extra for something that was still treated regularly with antibiotics (and therefor potentially contains antibiotic resistant bacteria).

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4 thoughts on “Transparency Thursday: Mystery Meat? The Mystery’s Out, It’s Pumped Full of Antibiotics

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