Have you seen those “grade cards” that rate restaurants (usually fast food places) on how many antibiotics are in the meat? The headlines pop up occasionally and usually say something like: “Most fast food companies given failing grades for antibiotics in your meat.”
Seems pretty scary; right? Who wants to eat antibiotics?!
But here’s the good news: there are no antibiotics in your meat!
Why do farmers give animals antibiotics?
Farmers will sometimes use antibiotics to treat sick animals. Just like when our pets become sick, a veterinarian can prescribe the medicine to treat them. Sometimes it becomes important to treat all animals in a herd, to prevent all of them from getting sick. Although it isn’t required, a growing number of farms use antibiotics that aren’t medically important for humans (ie. the ones we don’t usually use to treat human illnesses).
In the past, antibiotics were used to promote growth in farm animals. But in 2017 the FDA acted to phase out these uses. Antibiotics are no longer allowed for production practices. And veterinarians are required to prescribe any drug use.
Federal law regulates the use of antibiotics in animals
As with so many other things on the farm, the federal government regulates the use of antibiotics in all food animals.
Antibiotics are only approved for use after thorough vetting by the Food & Drug Administration. The primary focus: human health. The FDA wants to make sure that the products from animals treated with antibiotics are safe for human consumption.
Veterinarian oversight is required for all antibiotic use on the farm. Farmers are required to keep detailed paperwork about any antibiotics administered. The paperwork ensures that the medicine was given properly and appropriately.
Here’s the important part: once animals are treated with antibiotics, the medicine must clear its system before it can be processed for food. This is called a withdrawal time. The antibiotics don’t stay in your system forever, and it’s the same with animals. So by waiting the requisite number of days, farmers know that the antibiotics are sufficiently out of the animal’s system. (For the science-savvy, this article goes into much more detail.)
Milk is also free from antibiotic residue. In fact, every tanker of milk is tested when it’s picked up from the farm. If it tests positive for antibiotics, it all gets dumped. And the farmer doesn’t get paid for that milk. So keeping treated animals out of the supply is extremely important!
The USDA does random sampling to check for antibiotic residues. If a problem is identified, the farm is identified and appropriate action is taken. But this happens only very rarely.
Antibiotic resistance is a big deal
This is a topic we should all be concerned about–farmers, consumers, and animals. Without effective drugs to combat bacteria, we could all fall prey to basic infections.
Which brings us back to those grading cards. Presumably, they mean to show us which restaurants are doing the most to cut back on antibiotic use and fight against resistance. The problem is too many people now think they’re consuming antibiotics every time they eat a hamburger. The grading cards are an irresponsible way to give important information.
The FDA’s new rules expanding veterinarian oversight and eliminating some uses of antibiotics on the farm were important. And the FDA continues to work on these issues for both animals and humans. We should rely on the FDA’s reporting and handling of these matters.
Humans should also try to eliminate reliance on antibiotics. If you have a cold, don’t ask your doctor for medicine–allow your body to fight it off. The less we use these drugs for frivolous matters, the longer we’ll have them for the really important things.