If You Eat Meat, You’re Feeding Superbugs

PC: Alan Matthews

Unless you’re a vegan or vegetarian, the title of this article might make you feel threatened. You’re wondering if you should keep reading this lunatic treehugger propaganda, or move on and put it out of your mind. People have told you the facts before. You probably know that more than 9 billion animals are killed in the USA alone for human consumption (including egg hens and dairy cattle, both of whom are killed and eaten as soon as their productivity drops), but darn it, meat is meat. It tastes good, it’s high protein, and it’s cheaper than some weird, processed alternative.

And maybe you have started to hear that, all ethical problems aside, methods of animal farming in the United States are dangerous for people — they serve as breeding grounds for mutant strains of bacteria that can resist every antibiotic pumped into, sprayed on, or thrown at farmed animals (and yes, those are the same antibiotics that get pumped into you when you get a bacterial infection. If those antibiotics don’t work, well, we might as well drop back a century and a half and start chopping off infected limbs while hoping for the best).

Of course scientists are racing to find newer, stronger, antibiotics, and sometimes they succeed, but the truth is that they just can’t keep up with the prolific development of these bacteria, deemed ‘superbugs’ due to their persistence against all 21 plus pounds of antibiotics thrown at them by the animal agriculture industry. Mainstream media frequently places the onus of the superbug scare on hospitals, but research kept in the shadows by meat industry moguls shows that animal agriculture, with its lax regulations and massive throughput, is far and away the leading factor in breeding antibiotic resistance.

Photo: Joanna Hamefiled | The BMJ

Maybe those sorts of facts have made you think, and you’re trying to reconcile your consumption of meat with your ethical standards — maybe you try to buy antibiotic free meat whenever you can. Here’s an unfortunate caveat, though: the label “antibiotic free” means that your cow or chicken or pig was not fed antibiotics for seven days before it was killed.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Wait! So it was fed antibiotics for most of its life. How exactly does that prevent the problem of superbugs?” In fact, it only makes it worse. As antibiotic concentrations in an animal’s bloodstream decrease in that seven day period, the bacteria in their environment have a chance to proliferate — and because some amount of antibiotics perseveres in the animals for most of that period, natural selection favors the bacteria who, through some random mutation or horizontal genetic exchange, confer antibiotic resistance. These resistant strains outcompete susceptible strains, and when the antibiotic free cows are killed and the next batch comes in — bam! Only the most resistant bacteria will survive, and then multiply. It’s natural selection, and the accelerated evolution of bacteria into unstoppable, antibiotic resistant superbugs is just as natural as jamming truckloads of animals together and killing them en masse.

So next time you’re going along the 5 in Central Valley, and you cover your nose as you drive through miles of dust kicked up by cows shoved shoulder to shoulder in feedlots waiting to be killed, or gag at the smell radiating from a massive chicken farm, allow yourself, just for a second, to think the thought that society has so effectively convinced you to ignore: This is wrong. No wonder these doomed animals need mountains of antibiotics in order to survive their disease-ridden conditions long enough that a human can finish the job. No wonder bacteria mutate and evolve more rapidly than scientists can handle.

And next time you eat out, go ahead and order a hamburger. Get a milkshake to go with it, if you want. No one is going to stop you. But someday, when you’re scanning over a menu, and you see falafel next to gyros, or tofu next to chicken… try something new. Do something good for your body, and for the human race — heck, for the whole planet. You just might come to like the feeling.

Jessica Schwabach is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying molecular biology and genetics. She is part of an alternative meats engineering effort hosted by the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology.

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