In the United States, more than 80% of the antibiotics in the country are used in livestock. This means that the vast majority of the meats and other foods we eat that aren’t labeled "organic" or "antibiotic-free" probably contain not only the kinds of drugs that your doctor may prescribe you for a bacterial infection, but also bacteria that can’t be killed by antibiotics.
Although we do know that 80% of antibiotics are used in livestock, we don't know which drugs are used on which animals, and for what reasons. Because of this widespread use of antibiotics, users are killing the bacteria in these animals that can be killed by antibiotics, and leave behind the kinds of bacteria that cannot.
These bacteria that can’t be killed by antibiotics, and thus survive the feed treatments, are the problem. Since we don’t know what drugs are used on which farms and what animals, we're unable to tell what drugs these bacteria are resistant to. When people get sick from food with these antibiotic-resistant bacteria, most of the drugs we have today won’t work for them. If a drug can still work, it takes a long time to figure out which one will, prolonging the illness of the patient.
Multiple scientific organizations, like the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration all agree that use of antibiotics in healthy livestock contribute to the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, but they can’t make any specific claims right now.
Over 100,000 people died from antibiotic resistant infections in 2012. This is the equivalent of a commercial plane crash every day for an entire calendar year.
So the question is: Don’t you want to know what’s in your dinner?
The biggest issue here is information — we can’t change what we don’t know. Even though there's agreement that antibiotic use in livestock is linked to the sorts of problems I've described, we can’t know what the specific details are without specific data.
There has been legislation in the past few years calling for information, but it has stalled in Congress because the pharmaceutical and agriculture businesses don’t want their profits taken away. But how do they calculate this financial tradeoff between quality of life and company profits? Is the bottom line really worth thousands of hospitalizations every year?
In this case, what we don’t know can indeed hurt us. So what can we do about it? Here are five simple ideas to effect change.
1. Look for meats and other products that are labeled “antibiotic-free,” “raised without antibiotics”, or “100% organic.”
These labels are highly regulated (much more than antibiotics are!) and mean what they say. They may be slightly more expensive, but peace of mind is sometimes worth the extra cost.
2. Be vigilant about washing your hands after handling raw meat and thoroughly clean any surface that it touched.
Just like with other germs, these are common ways for infection to spread. Cooking utensils, cutting boards, sinks, and counters usually are the culprits in harboring dangerous bacteria.
3. Wash all fruits and vegetables before consuming them.
Sometimes farms use fertilizers that can contain these antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which make their way into the soil, and once this soil gets on the produce, so do the bacteria.
4. Cook meats to the correct temperature.
Even though the bacteria may be antibiotic-resistant, this does not make them heat-resistant! Proper cooking could kill even the nastiest bug.
5. Contact your Representative in Congress and tell them why you think this is an important issue.
Unfortunately, sometimes Washington can be a bubble. By hearing from their residents, Congressmen and -women can better gauge what their home districts care about. If they don’t know that you care, they most likely won’t care either.