The Lurking Epidemic Hidden in Our Food Chain

The Lurking Epidemic Hidden in Our Food Chain

Meat producers routinely feed animals antibiotics to make them grow faster, and to help them survive the crowded, stressful, unsanitary living conditions that are typically found in factory farms. A whopping 70% of all medically-important antibiotics are sold in the US for use in livestock. The excessive and often unnecessary use of these so-called miracle drugs leads to bacteria developing resistance and weakens the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating humans.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and 23,000 die as a result. And these are conservative estimates: as Reuters recently reported, it’s likely that we’re significantly under-counting the human toll of superbug infections.

Chicken raised without the routine use of antibiotics is now one of the fastest growing segments of the poultry industry. Producers in this category include some of the biggest players in the industry: Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods and Foster Farms. After about a decade of trial and error in some cases, chicken companies are showing that raising animals without reliance on antibiotics is not only possible, it’s profitable.

While the majority of the chicken industry still needs to reduce antibiotic use, chicken suppliers are ahead of other meat producers. Their headlong leap into antibiotic stewardship is a result of two main factors. First is the industry’s production model – chickens have shorter lifecycles and likely fewer chances to contract infections than other types of livestock. Second, the vast majority of chickens produced in the US are raised by companies that own all or a significant part of their supply chains, making it possible for them to dictate specific farming practices across their entire operations.

The popularity of chicken with many Americans as a healthier protein alternative may also be a factor. The largest chicken companies and their top buyers – restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Subway, Wendy’s and Taco Bell – are responding to consumer priorities about how antibiotics are used in the chicken they grow or sell. Consumers are holding meat companies accountable for cleaning up their drug use practices. A case in point: in August, NRDC and our allies delivered petitions signed by more than 350,000 people to KFC headquarters, calling on the iconic chicken restaurant chain to establish a strong antibiotics policy for its chicken supply.

We need companies that produce pork, beef and turkey to rise to the occasion. Though slower in coming, there are signs of progress. Perdue now also raises about half its turkeys without antibiotics. This year, Tyson announced the launch of a new line of pork raised without antibiotics, and Cargill announced it was reducing its use of medically-important antibiotics in its beef production by 20%, a move that impacts approximately 1.2 million cattle.

The government now needs to catch up with industry leaders by swiftly enacting mandatory restrictions on the routine use of antibiotics across the livestock industry. Despite having known for decades that the misuse of antibiotics in livestock threatens our health, the Food and Drug Administration has almost entirely failed to act to stop it. All we’ve seen to date from the agency are loophole-riddled guidelines.

Millions of parents like us serve as powerful advocates for the health of their families each time they purchase meat at a grocery store checkout or a restaurant counter. But we cannot simply lay this problem at the feet of consumers. The government and food industry must do more. If most meat producers continue to use antibiotics as a substitute for good animal husbandry, then it’s our children who may end up paying most dearly.