Antibiotic Use in Food Is Rising, Heightening Risk of Drug-Resistant Bacteria

Two reports highlight the use of antibiotic-fed beef, pork, and chicken in American restaurants and the growing risk of antibiotic-resistant illnesses around the world.

Scientists are giving fast food lovers yet another reason to change their diets.

In addition to fat, sugar, salt, and other chemicals, antibiotics are also making cheap burgers, tacos, and fried chicken dangerous, according to two recent reports.

The first study details how restaurant chains like Applebee’s, McDonald’s, and Dairy Queen are using meat from farms where animals receive antibiotics not to cure sickness but to accelerate growth and prevent diseases caused by poor diets and crowded, stressful, dirty living conditions.

The consequences are potentially dire, according to the report, which was issued by the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Friend of the Earth, the National Resources Defense Council, and the US PIRG Education Fund. Bacteria overexposed to antibiotics develop resistance to the drugs, setting the stage for drug-resistant illnesses.

“We must stop squandering antibiotics on animals that aren’t sick at a time when these vital medications are losing their ability to fight infections in people,” said Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at the Consumers Union in a statement.  “Fast food restaurants have tremendous market power and should use their leverage to help address this public health crisis by ending the misuse of antibiotics.”

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The report gave letter grades to 25 companies, noting, for example, that Chipotle and Panera were the best at weeding out antibiotics from their menus while Dominos and IHOP were among the worst.

KFC improved from receiving an F last year to a B- this year after pledging to stop using certain antibiotics in chickens if doctors also prescribed them for humans. Other chains had similarly improved by phasing out antibiotic use in chickens.

But the report noted that few chains were figuring out how to cut antibiotics in beef and pork.

Meanwhile, the Center of Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy published a study in the journal Science examining the scope of antibiotics in livestock and recommending how policymakers might encourage farmers to reduce the drugs they give their flocks and herds.

The center’s study found that farmers around the world gave animals more than 131,000 tons of antibiotics in 2013. That number is set to increase 53 percent to more than 200,000 tons by 2030 if current trends hold up, including the populations of China and India eating more meat as their countries become more prosperous.

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The center proposed new regulations capping 64 percent of antibiotics used in agriculture today, limiting meat consumption to around one burger per person per day worldwide to cut antibiotic consumption in animals by two-thirds, and levying a 50 percent tax on veterinary antibiotics that could reduce the use of the drugs by 31 percent and generate as much as $4.6 billion a year to fund drug research.

Ramanan Laxminarayan, the center’s director and lead author of the report, said the recommendations would add maybe a nickel to the cost of a burger. That’s a small price to pay since the increasing number of bacteria that kill 700,000 a year globally are already impervious to antibiotics, he said. For comparison, around 1 million people die every year due to HIV-related illnesses, according to the World Health Organization.

“We are creating another AIDS pandemic for no particularly good reason except to have hamburgers that cost 5 cents less,” said Laxminarayan. “That seems like a poor choice.”

WATCH: How Much Are Antibiotics Used in Your Meat?