Antibiotic Contamination of Our Food Supply

May 15, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

When history delivers its final verdict on 20th and 21st century crimes against humanity, I am convinced that the meat and pharmaceutical industry will be found guilty, largely responsible for millions of deaths.

Their crimes?

A huge percentage of the cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and seafood that give us our steaks, burgers, pork chops, chicken cutlets, etc. are raised in brutal environments euphemistically called “farms.”

But we’re not talking Old MacDonald’s all-natural, free-range farm here.  Quite the opposite: cows shackled in place side by side. Caged chickens stacked twenty feet high in hangar-sized warehouses. Fish packed together so tightly you can walk on them.

With all of these tortured creatures living virtually immobilized in their own waste, outbreaks of bacterial virus are inevitable—and costly.

How a lifesaver turned into a killer

The solution? The meat industry turned to Big Pharma, which provides literally tons of antibiotics that prevent or cure bacterial infection.

How convenient that many of these antibiotics also accelerate growth. Today’s meat farms get a slaughter-ready cow months sooner than a cow raised in humane, natural conditions.

The problem with this “solution?”  Some of those antibiotics—once celebrated as lifesavers—end up on our menus, too. Partially metabolized antibiotics remain in the flesh of treated animals.  And we eat them.

Equally horrifying: bacteria and antibiotics are flushed from these meat factories into our rivers and our entire ecosystem, including our city water systems. Indeed, small amounts of antibiotics have been found in 24 major U.S. city drinking water supplies, according to an investigation by the Associated Press.

When billions of live bacteria rub up against weakened antibiotics, we have the perfect environment for creating “superbugs”—bacteria that mutate to become immune to all known antibiotics.

Yes, water utilities claim that there are insufficient amounts of antibiotics and other drugs in our waters to cause harm to humans. How many times have we heard that one? And whose interests are served by continuing to pour antibiotics into what becomes our food?

The threat of a “post-antibiotic era”

The superbug threat, as I’ve written before, is the stuff of doomsday science fiction.

To put the worst case simply: millions will die.  Pneumonia, tuberculosis, venereal disease, strep and staph infections and more, once controlled and nearly eliminated by antibiotics—will be immune to them.

The World Health Organization calls antibiotic resistance “an increasingly serious threat to global public health,” warning that “The world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries, which have been treatable for decades, can once again kill.”

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What exactly is this “post-antibiotic era?” It’s when no current antibiotic is effective in controlling killer bacteria.

I’m afraid this post-antibiotic era has already dawned. At least 2 million Americans are infected with a superbug every year—at least 23,000 of them fatally.  And those are just estimates.  The real figure is almost certainly higher.

Indeed, “superbugs” are now believed to kill over 700,000 people worldwide per year. A recent British government-commissioned study warned that superbug infections could kill over 10 million people annually by 2050.

To pull perhaps the scariest phrase from the WHO report: ” … minor injuries, which have been treatable for decades, can once again kill.”

For example, before the antibiotic era:

  • 1 out of every 9 skin infections was fatal—as minor as a paper cut
  • 3 out of every 10 people who got pneumonia died from it
  • 50% of all post-birth deaths were caused by a Streptococcus bug
  • 80% of deaths from infected wounds were caused by a Staphylococcus bug

Antibiotics changed all that, saving millions of lives.

However, without an effective antibiotic, the now-routine procedure or common place injury becomes impossibly risky, if not impossible altogether. There’s no way to even estimate how much havoc and death would result.

But there is hopeful news.

Eleftheria terrae is a newly discovered, naturally-occurring bacterium that shows enormous promise—possibly the silver bullet that averts a full-scale post-antibiotic age.

If tests with human subjects show the same results as tests in mice, Eleftheria could save the day:

  • It neutralized the worst of the superbugs—pneumonia, tuberculosis, and staph.
  • It neutralized dozens of other bacterial threats across a range of diseases.
  • It stopped pathogenic bacteria from using their most dangerous trait: the ability to mutate into new, antibiotic-resistant strains.

Needless to say, hopes are high for Eletheria.

How you can help yourself and others

To start, avoid running to the doctor for every minor sneeze and sniffle. Many doctors are quick to scribble out antibiotic prescriptions, on request, just to shuffle patients out the door. But the truth is, antibiotics are useless against the common cold and taking them unnecessarily promotes additional antibiotic resistance.

Secondly, there is a growing movement away from antibiotic-treated food sources.  It must continue.  Whenever you have a choice, choose untreated.  And if you want to use your voice, do so. Urge friends, family, politicians and grocery stores to speak out against the practice.

I’m sorry I don’t have my usual upbeat close.  This is really serious.

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