What's the beef with antibiotics?

Published: May. 11, 2016 at 12:03 PM EDT|Updated: May. 11, 2016 at 7:04 PM EDT
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(Source: Ivanhoe Newswire)
(Source: Ivanhoe Newswire)

RALEIGH (Ivanhoe Newswire/WTVM) --  By 2050, according to a British study, the global death toll from antibiotic-resistant infections could skyrocket to 10 million a year. Today, much of the blame is put on the meat industry. Every year, cattle ranchers use 29 million pounds of antibiotics in their animals. But how much of that really makes it to your dinner plate?

Ronald Baynes, DVM, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology at NC State College of Veterinary Medicine says, "We may want to test and see how soon after given that drug is that drug not going to be in the milk of that dairy cow."

Paula Cray, PhD, Professor and Head of Population Health and Pathobiology at NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, leads the research project. She experienced the superbug issue first hand when her father caught an infection in the hospital. It was resistant to all but the strongest of antibiotics.

Cray says, "He lost his hearing and that's a side-effect. So, this doesn't just affect people who aren't in science, it affects all of us."

Cray says, by the time meat makes it to our grocery stores, it is not riddled with antibiotic residue. That's not the problem. For decades, the meat industry has fed animals a steady diet of antibiotics to make them grow faster and eat less.

"We need antimicrobials to treat diseases in animals to ensure that we have a wholesome and healthy food animal," Cray says.

Over time, bacteria in the animals become resistant to those antibiotics. By the time it gets to our dinner tables, it's free of antibiotics, but full of drug-resistant bacteria that can infect people if the meat isn't cooked properly.

Sid Thakur, BVSc, MVSc, PhD, Associate Professor of Molecular Epidemiology at NC State College of Veterinary Medicine says, "When these patients end up in the hospital, they're not just infected with pathogens that are resistant to one drug, they will have pathogens that are resistant to three, four, five drugs."

More and more people are opting to buy meat raised without antibiotics, but read the labels carefully when shopping. 'antibiotic-free' labels are misleading because, by law, all meat must be free of antibiotics. 'All natural' is another claim that doesn't mean anything. Look for labels that say 'no antibiotics administered, or, 'no antibiotics ever.' and meats labeled with 'USDA process verified' means inspectors have validated their no-antibiotic claims.

Thakur says, "In my opinion, we tend to focus a lot more on the animal side, but there's a lot going on the human side also."

The fear about a global superbug spread is true. And the major concern is not meat.

Cray says, "Now we're more aware of the issue than we have ever been in the past, and I think that we have a much better idea that we're in this together."

The CDC estimates half of antibiotic prescriptions in the u-s aren't even necessary. And the vast majority of people polled admit they stop taking antibiotics as soon as they feel better, and don't finish their prescription, adding to the resistance problem.

"I feel the veterinarians and the physicians need to work together to really solve this problem," Thakur says.

In the meantime, wash your hands and sanitize counters and cutting boards after you handle raw meat.  You may be the last defense against increasingly dangerous bacteria that could hurt you and your family.

Starting January 2017, the FDA will make it illegal for animal producers to use antibiotics for growth purposes. And they will need to get authorization from a licensed veterinarian in order to treat any sick animals.

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