When it comes to overusing antibiotics, we’re pretty well informed about the consequences—but what about the consequences of overusing antibiotics in animals for the consumer markets? It’s not just affecting the animals, but us, too.
Overuse of antibiotics for ourselves or our livestock has some pretty big implications that travel down the food chain from them to us. When livestock needs antibiotics, it’s not a problem on rare occasions. If it’s overused from poor husbandry conditions, as it most usually is, the livestock are at risk of contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which contaminates our meat supply.
A study from the journal Environmental Health Perspectives noted that there is a big difference between conventional meat and organic meat when it comes to the likelihood of passing these drug-resistant bacteria onto us in our next steak. A shocking one-third of conventional meat processing facilities are contaminated with bacteria; but certified organic meat processing facilities have a 56% less chance of contamination with multi-drug resistant bacteria.
These bacteria (Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, and Enterococcus) diminished from a 4% rate of contamination in conventional meat to less than a percent in organic meat. Of course, the cleanliness standards also play a role in the transfer of the bacteria, which was illustrated by the facilities that showed conventional meat was contaminated a third of the time. However, facilities that processed a combination of organic meat and conventional meat were only contaminated a quarter of the time—something which the researchers believe is due to the rigorous cleaning between organic and conventional meats which may share the same equipment.
Despite the type of the facility in which the meat (including chicken, pork, and ground beef and turkey) was processed, multi-drug resistant bacteria was found in facilities that were conventional or split between conventional and organic. The clear winner was the meat from certified organic facilities, which contained less multi-drug resistant bacteria and less bacteria altogether.
Ask people why they choose organic, and you’ll likely get a lot of different answers; but up until now, there may not have been a lot to persuade people why it is a better choice. Supporting organic farmers and organic livestock conditions ultimately means that paying more up front for your next meat is a potential way to help other people and animals avoid the creation of the next superbug.
Gabriel K. Innes, Keeve E. Nachman, Alison G. Abraham, et al. Contamination of Retail Meat Samples with Multidrug-Resistant Organisms in Relation to Organic and Conventional Production and Processing: A Cross-Sectional Analysis of Data from the United States National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, 2012&. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2021; 129 (5) DOI: 10.1289/EHP7327