March 6, 2009

Meat Meets Medicine

Rebecca Klein

Rebecca Klein

Program Officer, Food System Policy Program

Center for a Livable Future

My local grocery store, like many around the country, has a pharmacy inside. This pharmacy, like many around the country, happens to be situated next to the meat section. Normally, I think nothing of this juxtaposition. That was, until I stopped by the store the other night around 11pm to pick up a few essentials. I headed to the back of the store and there before me, squarely in front of the meat section, was a huge sign advertising free antibiotics.  I couldn’t help but laugh out loud (and cry a little on the inside).

“There’s some refreshing honesty,” I thought .  Most of the meat available in grocery stores around the country contains antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  This is because of non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production–a practice that is pervasive in this country, and has been found to result in antibiotic resistant bacteria in humans.  The Union of Concerned Scientists “has estimated that 70% of all antibiotics and related drugs in the United States are used for non-therapeutic purposes (growth promotion and routine disease prevention) in cattle, swine, and poultry.”

Why are essential human medicines going to animals that aren’t actually sick? And why should we care? Dr. Glen Morris, Dr. David Wallinga, and Dr. Tara Smith explained some reasons at a recent Senate briefing hosted in conjunction with Senator Kennedy (MA) and Senator Snowe (ME), who have been trying to get legislation passed on this issue for some time. Senator Brown (OH) also has introduced legislation on the issue.

As explained at the briefing, the main reason for the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics is to help the animals grow a little faster. It might even keep them from getting sick, which they could become due to what we might call their version of a housing-crisis. They live with thousands of their brethren, in an enclosed space that has air vents circulating the (bacteria-filled) air around the facility, and are often fed grains that evolution never intended for them to consume.  So, they are stressed, struggling and spreading their germs among each other…that’d sure make me sick.

Actually, it could very well make me sick and thousands of other Americans as well. The sub-therapeutic doses of these antibiotics help resistant bacteria develop–a not so happy 200th birthday nod to Darwin and his theory of evolution. These resistant bacteria happily thrive in the meat shipped to stores around the country, where they live contentedly until the package is purchased and they can continue their happy, resistant lives in new real estate–our bodies.

Sure, we co-habitat with all kinds of bacteria, but if a strain that makes us sick is inadvertently bred to resist the medicines that can make us well, we are in serious trouble.  As Dr. Wallinga noted, antibiotics are a Common Good, and should be protected as such.

Of course, the inadvertently honest sign wasn’t supposed to be in front of the meat section. It had migrated from the pharmacy, which was being quite generous in these hard economic times to offer free medicine to those in need. True, therapeutic need should be the only reason for a person, or an animal, to receive antibiotics.

More information about antibiotic resistance can be found through Keep Antibiotics Working and through the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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