Chicken Fingers with a Side of Penicillin?

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Let’s face it; feeding our children isn’t always easy. I was lucky with my first child, my daughter, who will try just about anything. So when she was younger it was easy for me to feed her a diet high in fruits and vegetables and while limiting the amount of meat she ate. My son, on the other hand, could subsist on a diet of chicken and chicken alone if he had things his way.


That’s not to say that I oppose feeding children meat. Although I did spend much of my life as a vegetarian, I’ve started to eat meat again (due to serious anemia) and enjoy eating chicken, fish and even beef (occasionally). The trouble with eating meat, and especially feeding it to my kids, is not about meat, but what might be in it. 

Mystery Meat

I like to know what I’m getting and this is doubly true when it comes to my kids. Meat and animal products often pose a problem because too often we don’t know what this animal is passing on to us and what types of effects that might have on our health.

When it comes to meat and milk, the biggest offenders I look out for are antibiotics and hormones (which I’ll address in a future blog).

Antibiotics are perhaps one of the greatest public health discoveries in history. They have saved countless lives and improved our health care in immeasurable ways. Like most good things, however, too much of a good thing is not always good. And when it comes to feeding low doses of antibiotics to healthy animals to promote growth and allow for less sanitary, more crowded conditions, it is frankly a very bad thing.

Many of you might be as shocked as I was to learn that 80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are given to livestock animals (not pets), often perfectly healthy food animals--to speed up their growth rates, as well as to compensate for unsanitary conditions on many industrial farms.

Lifesaving Drugs Made Useless

Unfortunately, this non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on healthy animals is a key reason for the rise of drug-resistant bacteria that pose a growing public health risk.

Studies show a multitude of resistant organisms on meat and poultry products. For example, a recent study of meat and poultry from five U.S. cities found Staphylococcus aureus on 47 percent of samples.  Ninety-six percent of those samples were resistant to at least one antibiotic, and 52 percent were multi-drug resistant.

By overusing antibiotics on farms and feeding them to healthy animals we’re making the drugs doctors rely on to treat illnesses like pneumonia, strep throat, and childhood ear infections less effective. Unfortunately, we have few new antibiotics to replace those that are no longer effective.

This overuse of antibiotics compounded by the fact that nearly two trillion tons of animal waste are produced each year by farm animals that often contains significant amounts of undigested antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria makes this a truly dire (not to mention disgusting, scenario. This waste, laden with antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria can contaminate surface and ground water, or spread through the air and soil, spreading antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can also spread through animal workers who come into contact with animals treated with antibiotics, and who are especially at risk of exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Paying the Price for Safety

With all of these awful facts in mind, I, like my colleague Wendy Gordon, have opted to buy organic poultry, meat and dairy products for my kids for a number of reasons, but in particular because they prohibit the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics to animals.

Yes, organic foods often do cost more, but, as Wendy explains, when a recent study published in the journal, Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, showed that chicken raised organically has less salmonella than chicken from conventional farms, and the salmonella it does have isn’t resistant to antibiotics, the extra cost seems well-worth it. (Other certifications besides organic that are antibiotic free are also an excellent option:

I, for one, sacrifice and at times pay more just to protect my kids. But the reality is that the prices are very high and many people today simply can’t stretch already stretched budgets further.  What we need is to make this food available to everyone, not just those who can afford to pay extra. In order to get this type of equity we need legislation: a rule that bans this risky attempt at cutting costs by food producers.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can stop the rise in antibiotic resistance in humans by banning the widespread use of other antibiotics used commonly on healthy livestock. Sadly, as my colleague Avinash Kar wrote, rather than protect us, following a lawsuit by NRDC and our partners, FDA reneged on its proposal to withdraw approval for the use of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed, a use that, back in 1977, it determined back may pose a risk to human health.

Europe is far ahead of the United States in the responsible use of antibiotics. On January 1, 2006, the European Union banned the feeding of all antibiotics and related drugs to livestock for growth promotion purposes. A number of U.S. food companies including McDonald's and Dairy Queen and some very large poultry producers (like Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Foster Farms, and Gold Kist) are taking steps that the FDA is too hesitant to take—McDonald’s announced in 2003 that it will not buy chicken from producers that use antibiotics for routine disease prevention, and the four poultry producers state that they have stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion (read more on Avinash Kar’s blog here.)

FDA should move to stop the unnecessary use of antibiotics on healthy animals and protect life-saving antibiotics for those who need them. Until then, only families who can afford to pay for meat that isn’t raised with antibiotics will be able to properly protect themsleves. And that, like antibiotic-laden meat, is tough to swallow.

In the meantime you can protect yourself from the hazards of antibiotic resistant bacteria in meat by exercising the same kind of care as any other bacterial hazard in food:  wash your hands and any surface that comes into contact with meat thoroughly with ordinary soap and water, thoroughly cook meat before eating, avoid cross-contamination, and refrigerate food promptly.