Antibiotic Resistance and the Industrial Meat Industry: Foodie Underground


ColumnDealing with antibiotic resistance starts with thinking about what’s on your plate.

I was watching a PSA this week, all about antibiotics. It got me thinking: why aren’t we more pissed off about the problem of antibiotic resistance? Or moved to change our actions that are part of causing it?

Imagine you have an infection . . .

. . . that your child has an infection.

Nothin’ major a few days of antibiotics should clear it up, right?


Well-known antibiotics are proving to be less and less effective every year, and people across America are starting to wonder why.

More and more people are starting to talk about antibiotic resistance. But we shouldn’t just be talking about antibiotics, we should be talking about what we’re eating. Because it is in part our food habits that are fueling this problem.

Antibiotics, originally developed to protect human health, are now keeping the industrial livestock industry alive. About 80 percent of the antibacterial drugs sold in the United States go to livestock, and not even to sick livestock. They’re simply used to keep animals healthy in a system that’s inherently unhealthy for them, raised in overcrowded spaces that are often unhygienic. This non-therapeutic use of antibiotics helps keep the industry producing cheap meat. I’m talking about your bacon. Your hot dogs. Your burgers. Your bologna sandwich. Are people still eating those?

As the industrial meat industry has grown, so has the use of antibiotics. Between 1985 and 2001, the use of antibiotics in feed for industrial livestock production rose by 50 percent. The U.S. isn’t alone. In Britain about half of antibiotics go to livestock.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists:

While the links between animal agriculture and human disease are complicated and in need of additional study, evidence is strong enough for scientists and public health organizations to call for reduced use of antibiotics in agriculture. The CDC has concluded that, in the United States, antimicrobial use in food animals is the dominant source of antibiotic resistance among foodborne pathogens.

Drug resistant bacteria that develops on farms, easily reaches the general public, making these bacteria a national health issue. We’re not talking about just a few cases here and there of not being able to deal with certain infections. We’re talking full-blown health crisis. In fact, according to the NRDC, drug-resistant infections are estimated to cost Americans up to $26 billion per year in additional healthcare costs. That $5.99 steak on sale might seem like a good deal now, but the ramifications and costs of its productions are much higher.

“A post-antibiotic era – in which common infections and minor injuries can kill – far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st Century,” wrote the authors of a recent World Health Organization report on antimicrobial resistance.

Beyond leaving us incapable of dealing with infections, there are also studies on the link between obesity and the use of antibiotics. The use of antibiotics for livestock is making us fatter and keeping us from treating infections. Choosing to eat industrially produced meat isn’t just a matter of your own health, it’s a matter of global health.

Wherever you fall on the eat meat vs. don’t eat meat argument, I think we can all agree that this is a flawed system. Using antibiotics in farming is dangerous. We are keeping an unsustainable alive, while at the same time putting our own health at risk.

We need a different system, and that starts with thinking about what’s on the plate in front of us.

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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at

Image: Greg Goebel

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.