Why You Want Antibiotic-Free Foods
by Carol Milano
Most consumers are unhappy at having to pay more for a needed
product. But surprisingly, the rising cost of antibiotics is
actually welcome news. Here's what's behind this paradox.
For years, America's farmers have given healthy animals low
levels of antibiotics-similar or identical to the ones humans
take. "Farmers think that using penicillin and other antibiotics
will avoid minor infections which don't kill the animals, while
at the same time maximizing their growth," observes Dickson
Despommier, PhD, a professor of public health and microbiology
at the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University.
"This means the animals will be bigger and ready for slaughter
sooner. The faster you can get your animals to market, the more
Antibiotics are especially prevalent on "factory farms,"
where large numbers of cattle, pigs and chickens are wedged into
small spaces. These drugs are not used to treat actual illness,
but to rush the animals up to "market weight" and to
prevent infections that could spread easily in the over-crowded
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that at least
70% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used in agriculture.
In their food and water, healthy animals receive far more of
these medications than ailing humans do. In 1989, the Institute
of Medicine (IOM) began questioning this practice, suspecting
it might lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria--a potential hazard
to human health. By 1992, the IOM had discovered that some strains
of bacteria were already resistant to several different antibiotics.
This becomes a serious medical concern because "multi-drug
resistant bacteria can lead to diseases that are difficult or
impossible to treat." Now, The Centers for Disease Control
(CDC) confirms that low-level use of agricultural antibiotics
does produce meat contaminated with bacteria resistant to these
"Small amounts of them in food can sensitize you,"
explains Dr. Despommier. "If your immune system reacts to
a particular substance, the next time you encounter that antibiotic,
you may have an allergic reaction. This limits your doctor's
or dentist's options in treating you for a particular problem."
He's concerned that no one actually knows how much antibiotic-tainted
food someone has to eat to become sensitized, since it's impossible
to track. "The biggest worry is, I'm innocently consuming
all this material, and not knowing about the problem until it's
too late and I actually have to be treated with one of these
antibiotics." Imported poultry and meat presents a special
problem, because regulations may be even less stringent in other
Changes are beginning to appear, partly because scientists
have recognized that antibiotics in our food are a major factor
in the development of antibiotic-resistant infections. The American
Medical Association, World Health Organization, American Public
Health Association, and American College of Preventive Medicine
are some of the organizations now actively opposing the use of
antibiotics in healthy animals.
Consumer groups are also extremely concerned. Thirteen non-profit
organizations have joined together in "Keep Antibiotics
Working: The Coalition to End Antibiotic Overuse" (KAW).
They're already having significant impact: KAW pressure led three
leading poultry producers, including Tyson Foods and Perdue,
to announce that they would cut back on their use of medically
important antibiotics. Then McDonald's agreed to plan a program
of monitoring and reducing antibiotic use among its suppliers.
Trade associations are helping, too. Seeking to keep antibiotics
effective by not "wasting" them on healthy animals,
the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) is encouraging
consumers to shop for meat raised without antibiotics. To help
people find local sources, they've developed a national map showing
where untainted products are available in each state.
Coincidentally, the use of agricultural antibiotics has begun
to decline recently, because their prices are rising and farmers
always want to cut costs. "They're realizing that animals
survive just as long, and have the same growth rate, without
antibiotics," Dr. Despommier reports.
What You Can Do
Individual consumers can have a major impact. As more customers
look for foods raised without antibiotics, producers are sure
to respond to market pressure. So consider
- purchasing foods labeled "antibiotic-free"
- letting supermarkets and restaurants you frequent know that
you would prefer these products
- supporting a business as it shifts away from selling antibiotic-raised
- following changes that particular farms and producers are
making in their antibiotic use
- contributing to a consumer group working to reduce antibiotics
in our food supply
Here's one case where shopping (very selectively) actually
can help safeguard the public's health.
RESOURCES FOR READERS
IATP's map of where to buy antibiotic free foods: www.iatp.org/eatwell/orgResults.cfm
KAW at www.keepantibioticsworking.com
(up-to-date information from one of the leading groups which
carefully follows, and attempts to influence, changes in agricultural
of these articles appear on the publication's website, which
are often password-protected or members-only. For your convenience,
I've gathered them on my own website.