Better Burgers: Why It’s High Time the U.S. Beef Industry Kicked Its Antibiotics Habit

Credit: K-State Research and Extension via Flickr

Public health experts have warned for decades that antibiotic resistance is worsening. Already, at least 2.8 million U.S. residents a year suffer infections due to drug-resistant bacteria, resulting in up to 162,000 deaths. Without urgent and meaningful action, we may soon see a future where working antibiotics have simply ceased to exist.

The misuse of medically important antibiotics is a key contributor to this crisis, including their routine and often unnecessary use in industrialized livestock production. Better Burgers analyzes antibiotic overuse by the U.S. beef industry in greater detail, and our analysis shows the industry consumes these drugs 3 to 6 times more intensively (per kilogram of livestock) than many of its European counterparts. In fact, as our other research has shown, U.S. sales of medically important antibiotics for cattle and pigs exceed sales for human use by 44 percent (10.8 million pounds of antibiotic ‘active ingredient’—including 5.6 million pounds for cattle alone—vs. 7.5 million pounds for human medicine.)

Because U.S. beef feedlots are typically crowded, stressful facilities that often overuse antibiotics, they represent a perfect environment in which drug-resistant bacteria—as well as the genes that foster resistance—will proliferate and spread. Better Burgers describes evidence that resistance genes and bacteria can spread from farms and feedlots to workers, meatpacking plants, and communities.

Public health has been and continues to be the victim of short-term thinking by the U.S. meat industry. That must change in order to protect the efficacy of these essential drugs for treating the sick. Beef feedlots in particular need to stop feeding medically important drugs to entire cattle herds whether or not there are any sick animals.

Just four meatpackers—Cargill, Tyson, JBS, and National Beef—purchase at least 80 percent of all feedlot cattle in the United States, and in turn supply beef to most of the nation’s grocery stores and restaurants. These four companies have the power to end routine antibiotic use throughout the entire beef supply chain; it is high time they make that change, along with retailers and policymakers.

The United States is grappling with COVID-19, the worst public health crisis in a century. Another worsening health crisis is staring us in the face, one caused by antibiotic-resistant infections. Without urgent action to stop the overuse of antibiotics, including by the U.S. beef (and pork) industry, it too is a crisis likely to claim more lives.

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