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 profitable."

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 conditions.

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 drugs.

"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 countries.

Recent Developments

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

  1. purchasing foods labeled "antibiotic-free"
  2. letting supermarkets and restaurants you frequent know that you would prefer these products
  3. supporting a business as it shifts away from selling antibiotic-raised animals
  4. following changes that particular farms and producers are making in their antibiotic use
  5. 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.


IATP's map of where to buy antibiotic free foods: www.iatp.org/eatwell/orgResults.cfm
KAW at www.keepantibioticsworking.com
www.organicconsumers.org/toxiclink.html (up-to-date information from one of the leading groups which carefully follows, and attempts to influence, changes in agricultural antibiotic use)

Many 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.