Untreatable: Factory Farmed Meat Linked to 23,000 Deaths

Untreatable: Factory Farmed Meat Linked to 23,000 Deaths


Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


By Jessica Culpepper, Food Safety & Health Attorney

Yesterday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that one of our worst medical nightmares is coming true—antibiotic resistant superbugs are leading us to a post antibiotic era, where common bacterial infections routinely cause permanent damage and even kill those who get them. The CDC estimates that a staggering 23,000 deaths are caused by antibiotic resistance. CDC Director Thomas Frieden gave this issue even more urgency by stating that “for some patients and microbes, we are already there.”

So what is causing these superbugs? According to the Threat Report (entitled Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013) issued by the CDC yesterday, mainly overuse in animal food production and overprescribing by doctors to patients who do not need antibiotics. According to Frieden, “widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture has resulted in increased resistance in infections in humans.” This resistance is what is responsible for the deaths of 23,000 people a year. 

You heard us right. The way we are raising our animals for food is killing us. A minimum of 23,000 of us.

While the cause is overuse in general, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used for livestock production. The remaining 20 percent is used to treat human illness. Unlike most antibiotic used for humans, rather than healing sick animals, most of the 80 percent of antibiotics are given to farmed animals at low levels throughout their lives to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise due to the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in which they are raised.  

How does that affect us? The constant low dosage of antibiotics over a long period of time gives animals resistant bacteria which then spreads through the animals and their manure to consumers. Here’s a simplified version of the CDC’s Report chart to explain how this happens on the animal-side of the process:


Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

You can see by the chart that the concern is not only the animals themselves, but also the crops onto which their manure is spread. This chart does not include, but should, what happens to the manure that gets washed into our rivers and groundwater. The resistant bacteria ends up in drinking water and recreational water, poisoning wells and ecosystems. That is exactly the kind of problem our clients are facing in our case against five mega-dairies in Washington state.

We cannot count on the industry to make change. If these animals were raised in pastures with space to engage in natural behaviors, given clean water and fresh food, there would be no need for these antibiotics. However, to increase profit and meet demand, the meat industry adopted deplorable practices that the CDC can now link to an actual death toll: at least 23,000 lives.  

But if the CDC is taking such a strong and clear position against the use of routine antibiotics, then where are the regulators? Our colleagues over at Center for a Livable Future ask this important question: where the CDC is sending an urgent message to protect our population, where is the FDA in all this and why won’t they use their authority to protect public health?

This question ties into a larger issue we have been grappling with at Public Justice for a while now – why is the factory farmed animal industry continually given a pass from regulators? From slipping through pollution laws to contaminating the food supply with downed animals, regulators blatantly turn a blind eye to this powerful industry to the detriment to the animals, the environment, and the consumers.

That is the question that started the Food Safety and Health Project. We cannot wait around for regulators who will not protect us. When regulators will not act, it is up to us to stop corporations from harming animals, people, and the environment. Our cases hold corporations accountable by demanding that courts do what regulators refuse to—force the industry to stop pushing the harmful costs of an unsustainable production process on everyone around them and remedy the damages done by their callous practices. Industry must be held accountable for breeding the superbugs responsible for so many deaths. Holding the food industry accountable is exactly what we intend on doing.  

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