The Superbug Crisis

Superbugs: A Public Health Crisis

The use of antibiotics in meat affects every single person on the planet in a very big way—whether or not we eat meat. That’s because the antibiotics we’ve long depended on to save our lives in the face of deadly infections are no longer effective against many “superbugs” that were once easily treated. Here’s why.

How “Superbugs” Evolved

Ever since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics have helped us defeat all manner of bacterial infections, from urinary tract infections to more life-threatening contagious diseases such as pneumonia. But bacteria are extremely smart, and the more they are exposed to antibiotics, the more they are able to figure out how to mutate so they cannot be defeated.

The overuse of antibiotics, particularly in meat sources, has given rise to the epidemic of antibiotic resistance. Soon the antibiotics that have dramatically increased the average lifespan of humans, will no longer be able to save us.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2 million Americans get an antibiotic-resistant infection each year, and 23,000 of them die from it. The World Health Organization issued a dire warning in a 2014 report: “A post-antibiotic era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”

Conventional meat farms are responsible for 80% of the antibiotics used in the United States. Meat manufacturers routinely pump livestock full of human-grade antibiotics in order to keep them alive and growing faster than normal in crowded, stressful, and unsanitary living quarters. This overuse is the main contributor to antibiotic resistance!

Fast Food and Antibiotics

Grass Fed Bison Hamburger with Lettuce and CheeseChances are, if you eat meat, you are already trying to make sure it comes from organic, antibiotic, and hormone-free farms. But it is nearly impossible to monitor the purity of the meat consumed at fast food and “fast casual” restaurants.

A report put together by six non-profit organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Consumers Union, and Friends of the Earth, ranks the most popular American fast food chains according to their policies on and implementation of antibiotics in meat.  Titled Chain Reaction II, the report ranked Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill head of the class with A grades, while 16 out of 25 of the chains got a failing F.

Reports such as Chain Reaction II seek to not only shed light on this issue, but to also spawn change. The authors explain that their priority “remains to encourage companies to adopt good policies that prohibit routine antibiotic use for growth promotion or disease prevention across all the meats they serve, even if those policies are not yet fully implemented.” 

How the Fast Food Chains Stack Up

Panera Bread and Chipotle scored an A because they use chicken, beef, and pork that are not routinely subjected to antibiotics. Panera reported that as of this fall, 91% of meat sources will be antibiotic free.

Subway jumped from an F to a B by adopting a revamped antibiotic policy for all varieties of meat sold.

Chick-fil-A held its B grade due to a 2014 antibiotic policy. Currently 23% of the chickens sourced have been raised without the use of human-grade antibiotics.

McDonald’s scored a C+, and claims that 100% of its chicken is raised without the use of human-grade antibiotics, although no such claims can be made for their beef or pork.

Wendy’s received a C, claiming that 50% of its chicken has not been tainted by human-grade antibiotics, and that by 2017, 100% will comply.

Taco Bell earned a C-, but promises that by 2017 all chicken sold will be raised without “antibiotics important to human medicine.”