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Report outlines dangerous trend plaguing meat aisles across the country: 'Not enough to protect people'

If you're concerned about them making their way into your meat, you can opt for more chicken or for certified organic meat.

If you're concerned about these chemicals making their way into your meat, you can opt for more chicken or for certified organic meat.

Photo Credit: iStock

Antibiotic sales to meat producers are growing after a brief decline, passing on potentially deadly health impacts to consumers.

What's happening?

As Vox reported, in the mid-2010s — after years of evidence that the antibiotics used to make animals grow faster were causing bacteria to mutate and develop resistance to antibiotics used in human medicine — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started requiring farmers to get veterinary prescriptions for antibiotics and banning the use of these drugs to make animals grow faster. 

As a result, sales of these antibiotics fell by 42% from 2015 to 2017. However, this trend has reversed, with antibiotic sales for use in livestock increasing 12% from 2012 to 2022, according to Vox.

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Part of the problem is that some of the antibiotics that promote growth, like tylosin, are still allowed for disease prevention.

"Antibiotic sales to meat producers continue to increase despite efforts that the FDA has made," Louis Sokolow, a policy associate with Frontier Group, a public health and sustainability research organization, told Vox. "The status quo of these small increases year over year is not enough to protect people from antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

Why is the rise of antibiotics used for livestock concerning?

In 2019, antibiotic-resistant bacteria killed more than 1.2 million people worldwide, reported the University of Oxford about a study published by The Lancet. More than 5 million others died from diseases where antibiotic resistance played a role, Vox summarized.

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Plus, antibiotics aren't the only danger plaguing our meat supply. Recent research revealed microplastics — tiny plastic particles measuring less than 5 millimeters long — in 90% of tested protein sources (that included meats). While scientists are still trying to understand the health impacts of microplastics, they have been shown to cause damage to human cells in laboratory tests.

What's being done about antibiotics in meat?

There has been some positive movement, especially in the poultry sector. In the early 2000s, the U.S.'s fourth-largest chicken producer, Perdue Farms, began weaning its chickens off of antibiotics — by 2016, it achieved its goal, replacing antibiotics with vaccines and probiotics, per Vox. 

After public outcry, other poultry producers and restaurants pledged to reduce their antibiotics use, and by 2020, over half of the country's 9 billion chickens farmed for meat were raised sans antibiotics. However, chickens only accounted for 6% of antibiotics in agriculture in 2016, and the momentum didn't spread to other parts of the meat industry.

Public health advocates would like the FDA to ramp up its efforts, using the European Union (EU) — where antibiotics for use in livestock plummeted from 2011 to 2022 — as a model. For instance, in 2022, the EU banned the routine use of antibiotics to prevent disease — now, they can only be used in cases where an animal is actually sick. 

Going forward, U.S.-based advocates with the Public Interest Research Group would like to see the FDA set a target of reducing antibiotic use by 50% by the end of 2025, based on 2010 levels. They also want data on antibiotic use to be published, and they want a limit on the duration of antibiotic courses used on farm animals, all per Vox. 

Meanwhile, states like Maryland and California have already restricted the use of antibiotics on farms, the outlet noted. 

If you're concerned about antibiotics making their way into your meat, you can opt for more chicken or for certified organic meat. You can also choose more meatless options.

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