If you regularly eat meat and animal products you should be really aware of the fact that the farm animals are regularly given antibiotics, particularly in intensive farming where animals are kept in confined conditions. This means that when you eat meat and animal products from these animals, you also ingest antibiotics left in them. The issue we face today is an overuse of antibiotics not only in humans but also in farm animals. This is all contributing to a growing problem of drug resistance which is a big threat to human health.
Why are farm animals given antibiotics?
Farm animals, such as pigs, dairy cows, and poultry, are given antibiotics for treating or preventing the diseases caused by intensive farming. (1)
Do you know how animals are actually kept and treated? Just to open your eyes, typically thousands of animals are kept together indoors, in confined spaces, on their own feces. They don’t have access to outdoors and they don’t have enough space to move around as they would move in nature. Diseases in these living conditions can develop quickly, therefore animals are given antibiotics as a preventative measure.
What’s the problem exactly?
The problem is that irresponsible use of antibiotics in agriculture is contributing towards antimicrobial resistance in human infections. While resistance is mainly caused by human antibiotics use, for a range of bacteria, farm animal use contributes significantly, and for some infections, it is the main source of resistance. (1)
Resistant bugs can readily spread to humans by a number of means – through direct contact with farm animals, consumption of animal products, through air or water.
Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer, explains why this is such a big issue:
Antimicrobial resistance poses a catastrophic threat. If we don’t act now, any one of us could go into hospital in 20 years for minor surgery and die because of an ordinary infection that can’t be treated by antibiotics.(1)
Dr Ron Daniels, Consultant in Critical Care at the Heart of England NHS says:
Bacteria that we are creating through the widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture are increasingly now impacting on human health. There is a link between antibiotic use in farming and increases in resistance in pathogens present in humans. (1)
What about organic meat and animal products?
The Soil Association website states that the routine use of antibiotics in organic farming is prohibited and animals must only be given drugs to treat an illness. (2) This is great to hear but do we still get exposed to antibiotics if we eat organic animal products? I couldn’t find the answer on the Soil Association website so I decided to get in touch with them on Twitter. The conclusion of the little chat I had with the Soil Association on Twitter was that organic meat and animal products don’t contain any traces of antibiotics.
How to stop the overuse of antibiotics in animal farming?
The recently released Review on antimicrobial resistance calls for tighter controls on antibiotic use in farming and this is based on scientific research which provides evidence to support limiting the use of antibiotics in agriculture. (3)
The paper lists a number of suggestions on how the unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals could be reduced and highlights the need for action on a global scale. Currently, there is still lots of work to do but things are moving in the right direction with the World Health Organisation (WHO) releasing its Global Action Plan for Antimicrobial Resistance in May – one of its main objectives is to “optimize the use of antimicrobial medicines in human and animal health”.
During my research, I also came across The Alliance to Save our Antibiotics which is a coalition of health, medical, animal welfare, and NGO organisations and is campaigning to stop the overuse of antibiotics in animal farming. They are calling on the UK government to take actions such as setting a target for reducing farm antibiotic use by 50% by 2020 and by 80% by 2025.
You can also get involved in their campaigns, see how here.
It seems that it will take some time to bring the use of antibiotics in animal farming under control but at least the problem is not being ignored and we are in the early stages of moving towards action.
Now that you are aware of this global problem you can make a few healthy choices for yourself – choose organic to avoid consuming any unnecessary antibiotics or even better, incorporate more vegetarian and vegan meals into your diet. Your body and the environment will thank you for it.