In a time when it’s hard to find common ground on anything, there is an issue that most, if not all, people can agree on—we should be doing everything we can to keep antibiotics effective for the future.
Maybe you’ve taken an antibiotic for an everyday ailment like an ear infection or strep throat. Or perhaps you’ve relied on effective antibiotics to ward off dangerous infections during chemotherapy. Whatever the case, antibiotics are the foundations of modern medicine, and they are quickly slipping through our fingers.
The overuse of antibiotics on livestock and poultry contributes to the rise and spread of bacteria that can resist our life-saving antibiotics. This means that if you contract an infection from these dangerous bacteria, antibiotics may not be able to cure you. Unfortunately, that is the case for at least 23,000 Americans each year who die from drug-resistant infections.
Approximately 70 percent of the medically important antibiotics sold in the United States are for use on livestock and poultry. The drugs are routinely given to animals that aren’t sick to make them grow faster, or to prevent disease that can be common in crowded, unsanitary conditions. The routine use of these drugs breeds antibiotic resistant bacteria that can travel off the farm and threaten public health through various pathways (i.e. water runoff, air-borne dust, human-animal contact, or on contaminated meat). A study published last October that was conducted in North Carolina found that people, especially children, living in close proximity to industrial hog operations were at a higher risk for carrying potentially dangerous bacteria.
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The good news is that help is coming from an unexpected, yet welcome place—fast food. If the executives of fast food chains take it upon themselves to no longer buy meat from farms that misuse antibiotics, it shifts the meat industry away from this harmful practice. It’s good old-fashioned economics. McDonald’s saw the consumer demand and concern from the medical community around this issue and committed to no longer serve chicken raised with the use of antibiotics important to human medicine. Tyson Foods, a major supplier to McDonald’s, responded by phasing out medically important drugs from their chicken production to meet that new demand. The list of restaurants taking concrete action on antibiotics is growing. Chick-fil-A will no longer serve chicken raised on antibiotics by 2019 and Subway committed to no longer serve any meat raised on antibiotics by 2025, starting with chicken. North Carolina’s own Bojangles’ recently announced its intention to phase out chicken raised on antibiotics important to medicine. The chain’s intentions seem to be in the right place. However, because it didn’t make a definite commitment that clearly states it will no longer serve chicken raised with the routine use of medically-important antibiotics by a certain date, our concern is that Bojangles’ hasn’t sent the same strong signal to the marketplace that some of its competitors have.
Restaurants like McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and Subway that have taken meaningful steps to protect antibiotics are deserving of praise. Others that are moving in the right direction deserve a little more encouragement. It’s going to take a great number of commitments from those in the food industry to shore up the foundations of modern medicine.
Matthew Wellington is the antibiotics program director for the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group.