What Are the Concerns of Antibiotics in Food?

A.M. Boyle

Many livestock, poultry, and fish farmers routinely mix small amounts of antibiotics into the food that they give their animals, regardless of whether the animals are sick. There is some concern that people who consume products from animals treated with regular, low-dose antibiotics will ultimately develop a resistance to medications used to combat serious bacterial illnesses. Many believe that the risks are not proven or are minimal at best, and forcing farmers to stop using low-dose antibiotics may have serious economic and health-related consequences.

Small amounts of antibiotics are mixed into the food given to livestock, poultry and fish.
Small amounts of antibiotics are mixed into the food given to livestock, poultry and fish.

For years, those who raise livestock, poultry, and fish for commercial use have given their animals small amounts of antibiotics so that the animals grow larger and stay healthy. One of the main concerns regarding this practice is that, over time, the low dose of antibiotics in food for animals creates a bacterial resistance to the drug. In short, the small amount of medication is enough to kill off only some of the weaker bacteria, while the germs that remain develop an immunity to the antibiotic and become stronger. This means that the disease the antibiotic is meant to cure or prevent can actually become more potent and resistant to the medication.

Cattle have routinely been fed antibiotics for years.
Cattle have routinely been fed antibiotics for years.

Certain evidence suggests that bacterial resistance developed in animals can be passed on to humans through consumption. In other words, the worry is that a person who consumes meat, fish, or derivative products, such as milk, can inherit an immunity to the types of antibiotics in food given to the animal. This is especially true if a product, such as meat or fish, has not been cooked properly or is eaten raw. If a person develops a bacterial resistance to an antibiotic and is later given that antibiotic to treat an illness, the medication might not work.

Some groups and organizations are also concerned that antibiotics in food can be passed on to humans through animal waste products. Due to the fact that antibiotics given to fish and livestock are not completely absorbed internally, some amount ends up in the animals’ excrement. These waste products generally find their way into the environment and eventually into the food a person eats.

As an example, farmers often use cow manure as fertilizer to grow vegetables sold to consumers. If the manure comes from cows treated with medication, then it likely contains some percentage of antibiotics, which is subsequently absorbed into the plants. The vegetables and trace amounts of those antibiotics end up on a person’s dinner plate. The concern is that, after a time, these small amounts might build up to a point where bacterial resistance results. This can cause certain people to become immune to much-needed antibiotics, curtailing their ability to fight off serious illnesses.

Industry professionals do point out that there is no substantial clinical evidence linking the use of antibiotics in food with an increase in bacterial resistance in humans. Further, farmers argue that a ban on the use of antibiotics would cost them a great deal of money because of the loss of animals to illness coupled with the alternative measures they’d have to take. This, in turn, would drive up the price of meat at the supermarket. Also, failure to use preventative antibiotics could ultimately prove more dangerous to consumers because of an increased risk of animal-borne illnesses and tainted meat reaching consumers.

Concerns expressed by the World Health Organization (WHO) have prompted officials in parts of Canada and the European Union to issue a ban on the use of antibiotics in food. There is no such ban in place in the U.S. Still, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has limits in place regarding the types and amounts of antibiotics used in the production of meat, fish, and other animal-related products.

Readers Also Love

Discuss this Article

Post your comments
Forgot password?