The Antibiotics You Have No Idea You’re Consuming. (Every. Single. Day.)

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After a brief hiatus for a casual transatlantic move, we’re back and ready for more food law and policy action. It’s a bittersweet farewell to England for now and a warm hello to California (like, really warm. Hello heatwave).

Today we turn to a fascinating and disturbing topic: the antibiotics you’re unknowingly eating every day.

Here’s a question for you. Who do you think consumes the majority of antibiotics in the US? The elderly? Children? Medically vulnerable populations?

Not even close. The answer: Animals raised for human consumption.

In the US, around 70 or 80% of antibiotics sold are to use on animals raised for human consumption. And these antibiotics generally aren’t being used on sick animals. They’re being given routinely in low doses to entire flocks or herds to get them to grow faster and to prevent disease in their tight living quarters. This allows producers to stuff more animals in squalid living conditions without sacrificing profit. When you then buy your meat at the supermarket, it comes with all these antibiotics inside. Millions of pounds of antibiotics each year.

In addition to the yuck factor that we’re constantly consuming so many antibiotics from such poorly treated animals, this also contributes to antibiotic resistance, which is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that drug-resistant bacteria cause 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths each year in the United States. Overusing antibiotics in food-producing animals is seen as a major contributor to these stats.  So even if you’re really careful about not going to the doctor (or not taking your kids in) for unnecessary antibiotics when you’re sick, you may be missing a big part of your exposure if you eat meat.

What can we do? Well, for one thing, we can reduce meat consumption—which brings with it a lot of other health and environmental benefits. For the meat we do eat, we can buy organic, since meat that has been treated with antibiotics can no longer be labeled as organic. (Too bad for you though if you can’t afford organic, because you’re relegated to eating all these antibiotics. Yet another alarming reminder of the inequity of our food system). And we can also support laws that prohibit this kind of antibiotic use.

In this regard, California is leading the charge. Shout out to my new state of residency. On Saturday, Governor Jerry Brown signed a new law making it the first state in the nation to outlaw the routine use of human antibiotics in livestock. In other words, producers won’t be able to use antibiotics on animals that aren’t sick and won’t be able to use antibiotics to fatten up animals more quickly. If food producers want to use any form of medically important antibiotics, under the new law they have to get a prescription from a veterinarian. Which isn’t too hard to wrap your head around, because it’s sort of (or exactly) like when you get sick and you need a prescription from a doctor to get antibiotics. Not exactly rocket science.

It seems disturbing that we needed a law to tell producers not to use antibiotics routinely on animals that aren’t sick, but hey, let’s not dwell on the past. At least now that law is here, even if it’s only in one state. The next step is for other states to follow suit or—better yet—for the federal government to do the same.

And even if you live in California, the law won’t come into force until January 2018, so for the next year and a half you might want to lay off the meat, or at least buy organic.

Want to learn more? Check out this article from the SF Chronicle for even more information, and this awesome blog post which breaks down the staggering numbers at play here (millions of pounds of antibiotics!).

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