Meat Groups are Anti-Science on Antibiotics Issue

Last Updated Jul 23, 2009 12:12 PM EDT

For years, doctors and scientists have warned that overuse of antibiotics has an ugly tendency to produce antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, which is dangerous for everyone. Now even the Food and Drug Administration has gotten on board, recently voicing its support for the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.

But those in the meat and dairy industry don't seem to care about scientific warnings on human health. They're opposing this bill, which has the oh-so radical idea (yes, that was sarcasm) that animals shouldn't be given antibiotics unless they're actually sick.

The current standard in huge livestock operations is to give all of the animals medicine as a preventative measure. Doing it differently would no doubt be more complicated and more expensive than just drugging every animal, which I highly suspect is the real reason industry groups don't want this bill passed.

But they say it's because the bill is "unscientific and unjustified" and "will jeopardize our ability to protect animal health, animal welfare and the food supply." And really, who are you going to believe on this? The American Meat Institute and the National Pork Producers Council? Or groups of wackos like the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization? (Yes, that was more sarcasm.)

An article in Meat & Poultry last month tackled the issue from an industry perspective, but completely distorted the argument. Number one, the article said, there is no link between antibiotic-resistant bacteria and swine flu (H1N1), because H1N1 is a virus, not a bacteria. This is true. It is also irrelevant. The public may be confused on this issue, but actual scientists are not.

Secondly, the article quoted a doctor as saying, "It is a common misconception antibiotic residues in meat can cause humans to become resistant." That is indeed a misconception. If I eat meat containing antibiotic residue, that will not make me "become resistant" so that antibiotics are no longer effective for me. That's just not how it works. The issue is with the bacteria themselves, which evolve in the presence of antibiotics and, through natural selection, grow resistant.

The fact that many lay people are confused about the details is not a very powerful argument that we should do nothing. Once those super-strains are out there, they're out there, and ideally, we don't want them to be out there in the first place.

For the record, not everyone in the food industry is against the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act bill. Chipotle Mexican Grill founder and co-CEO Steve Ells gave testimony in favor. Kudos to Chipotle, once again.

Related stories on BNET Food: FDA Caves to Pfizer, Industry on Antibiotics Ruling

  • Katherine Glover