Antibiotics in Food (Animal Meat, Dairy Milk…) Bad & Harmful?

While shopping for meat and dairy products at your local supermarket, by now you have probably noticed many packages proudly declare, "Antibiotic Free!"

White free-range hen is pecking a pill from the bowl with mix of grains and multicolored antibiotic pills

These products are made from meat and dairy products derived from animals that were raised without the use of antibiotics.

You may have hesitated, wondering whether you should pay $4 more for a package of beef that was raised antibiotic-free, or whether you really need to spend twice as much on milk made without the use of antibiotics.

Is antibiotic use in your food really a serious health concern?

One thing is for certain, and that is that consumers are concerned.

In 2012 alone, sales for antibiotic-free products increased by 25% over the preceding three years (1).

How serious that concern should be actually is a hotly debated public health issue. It all comes down to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Why Are Antibiotics Used in Food Manufacturing?

As the name implies, antibiotics are drugs that are used to kill infections caused by bacteria.

You probably have been prescribed antibiotics for a number of infections over your lifetime.

What many people did not know for a long time was that farmers often give antibiotics to their animals.

question mark on meat

This practice has been utilized since the 1940s.

The goal is in part the same as it is with humans; farmers are trying to treat infections in cows, pigs and chickens and stop other animals from catching those infections.

Farmers may also give their animals antibiotics for reasons that have nothing to do with combating infections.

Antibiotics may promote growth.

This enables a boost in the volume of meat or milk that an animal may produce (2).

When antibiotics are used to increase milk or meat production, the doses given are very low.

These low doses may have other benefits for the animals as well. They often reproduce more effectively, and they may also live longer.

Just how pervasive are antibiotics in agriculture?

In 2011, 80% of all antibiotics sales in the USA were to farmers who used them in animals producing meat and dairy products for human consumption (3)

KEY POINTFarmers use low doses of antibiotics on a regular basis to boost meat and milk production, reduce death rates, and increase reproduction among animals.

They are also sometimes used in higher doses to treat sick animals.

​Before Food Reaches the Supermarket, It Must Be Tested and Verified as Drug-Free

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a strict set of quality control standards for meat, eggs and dairy products that are intended for human consumption (4).

Other first world countries also have corresponding rules.

Before meat and dairy products are even allowed on supermarket shelves, they must first be tested for drugs.

Mature man looks through glass of meat counter in supermarket

Antibiotics are drugs, so this process is searching for antibiotic residue as well.

Before farmers butcher animals for meat or harvest milk or eggs to use in food, they must observe a drug withdrawal period.

During this period, the antibiotics leave the animal’s body.

Only after that withdrawal period is complete do the farmers produce food products.

If these products are submitted for testing and antibiotic residue is detected, the products are rejected.

They will be returned to the farm, and will never appear on supermarket shelves.

This ensures that antibiotics leaking into your food supply is actually very rare. The vast majority of your food should be antibiotic-free.

Any antibiotics which do turn up in your food will be present only in very low amounts.

What constitutes "very rare?"

USDA data from 2010 indicates (5) that less than 0.8% of all food products tested for contaminants (antibiotics and all other impurities) were found to contain any.

When you see shelves full of “Antibiotic Free!” products in your supermarket, it can give you the impression that all those other products which are not stamped with that seal actually contain antibiotics.

This is a misleading conclusion however.

In reality, very few of those foods contain any antibiotics whatsoever.

A meat product from an animal raised using antibiotics almost certainly contains no antibiotics whatsoever by the time it reaches you.

KEY POINT: Strict regulation by the USDA requires foods to be tested and verified as antibiotic-free before they are sent to supermarkets for human consumption.

This means that your antibiotic exposure through food should be negligible.

​What Are Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria?

As mentioned previously, there is a health concern involving antibiotic use in food, and that concerns the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

You may know something about this from personal experience.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a form of antibiotic-resistant staph, has received quite a bit of attention over the past decade.

Around 1% of the population is estimated by the CDC (22) to carry it.

While that may not sound like a lot, ask any healthcare professional about MRSA and you will find out that in healthcare settings, it is almost ubiquitous.

Healthcare-related infections of antibiotic resistant bacteria like MRSA have become quite common.

If you have had MRSA or know someone else who has, you know what a serious issue this is (6).

overuse of antibiotics - table pouring with pills

Essentially, overuse of antibiotics in healthcare settings has led to strains of bacteria that have evolved to resist them.

This means that it can be a challenge to find an antibiotic that can cure a patient of MRSA or another antibiotic-resistant illness.

Meanwhile, these antibiotic-resistant strains continue to adapt, resisting more and more attempts to kill them.

MRSA is just one form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

There are many other types as well. In fact, cumulatively, roughly two million people every year become infected by various resistant strains of bacteria (15).

These illnesses cause around 23,000 deaths each year. That is not even counting the deaths that result from complications.

While overuse of antibiotics in healthcare settings is partly responsible for the evolution and proliferation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, excessive use of antibiotics in other industries has also played into the development of this global health threat.

This includes the use of antibiotics to promote growth and curb infection in agricultural livestock (7).

While the USDA does screen for antibiotics in food and is able to catch most contaminants before they enter the public food supply, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has enough concerns about antibiotic use in livestock that it has created new regulations designed to reduce excessive use.

KEY POINT: The overuse of antibiotics in healthcare settings, agriculture, consumer products, and other sectors has led to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

These bacteria cannot be killed easily using standard antibiotics, and pose a serious public health threat.

​What Are the Health Risks Posed by Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria?

Livestock treated with antibiotics may develop antibiotic resistant bacteria.

There are multiple ways that antibiotic resistant bacteria can be passed to you as a human consumer.

First of all, it is possible to ingest the bacteria by eating infected meat, eggs, or dairy products.

antibiotic resistance process

One study (8) found that, "84% of isolates displayed resistance to at least one antibiotic, and 53% displayed resistance to at least three antibiotics."

Just what were those "isolates" from? Supermarket ground beef, chicken, turkey and pork.

A report from the FDA in 2011 (9) discovered that 81% of ground turkey meat contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as did 69% of pork chops.

Additionally, 55% of ground beef and 39% of chicken breasts were found to be similarly contaminated.

Yet another troubling study (10) found that 25% of beef, pork and poultry samples taken from 36 supermarkets in the USA contained MRSA.

Here is the worst of it … it isn’t just livestock raised with antibiotics which can be infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Livestock raised without antibiotics may also be infected.

Usually the bacteria contaminating these products is not as dangerous, but the threat still exists:

  • One study (11) found that Enterococcus was actually present in greater amounts in organic chicken than it was in non-organic poultry. Despite there being 25% more Enterococcus in the organic chicken however, it was also found that there was 13% less antibiotic resistant bacteria.
  • Another study (12) looked at Salmonella and Campylobacter in organic vs. non-organic chickens. Once more, this study found that organic chickens were more likely to contain both strains of bacteria. The same study also noted however that the non-organic chicken bacteria was more likely to resist antibiotic treatment than the bacteria found in the organic chickens.
  • Finally, another study (13) found that E. coli which was resistant to antibiotics was slightly less prevalent in chicken raised without antibiotics

Eating meat, dairy, or eggs contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria is not the only way to get infected however.

You can also be infected by consuming produce sprayed with fertilizer which contains manure from animals raised with antibiotics (14).

KEY POINTAntibiotic-resistant bacteria can pass into your body by consuming meat, dairy or produce.

While it is true that organically-raised meat contains less resistant bacteria than non-organic meat, even non-organic meat may be infected.

​How to Protect Yourself

So long as you properly prepare your food before consumption, you should be able to kill most bacteria.

But if you undercook your meat, handle it improperly, or someone who prepares your food makes a mistake, that bacteria could pass through your digestive tract into your body, spawning an antibiotic-resistant infection.

seasoning meat on table

I have assembled the following Action Tips to help you safely prepare your meals.

This will prevent the likelihood of infection by any bacteria, antibiotic-resistant or otherwise.

​​Safely Prepare Your Meals

  • ​Always wash your hands with soap and hot water before you prepare food.
  • ​Make sure that you regularly disinfect cleaning surfaces, cookware, dishes, and utensils.
  • ​Store any raw foods you purchase separately from other foods. This will prevent bacteria in your raw foods from contaminating your pre-prepared foods.
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    Wash your produce thoroughly before you eat it. As you rarely cook certain fruits and vegetables, this is extra important.
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    Buy an actual food thermometer to use while cooking.
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    Cook your foods at safe temperatures. For chicken or turkey, that means 165 degrees Fahrenheit (73.9 C). For ground beef, cook at 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71.1 C). For most other types of meat (pork, lamb, veal, steaks, roasts), aim for 145 degrees Fahrenheit (62.8 C) to stay safe. Be particularly diligent to cook your fish and shellfish completely.
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    Do not leave your foods sitting out at room temperature. Refrigerate them right away if you can. Never leave anything out longer than two hours. If it is warmer than 90 degrees Fahrenheit, your food needs to go in the fridge or freezer within the hour.
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    Defrost your food in the microwave, not by simply leaving it out.
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    When you seal food, get as much air out of the container as you can (push the air out of a plastic bag before you seal it).
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    Avoid drinking beverages that haven’t been pasteurized.
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    Throw away any food you have doubts about.

KEY POINT: Even if you are shopping for organic meat, dairy, eggs and produce, antibiotic-resistant bacteria may still be in your food.

If you follow the Action Tips above, however, you can prevent most infections.

​So How Concerned Should You Be?

Even knowing all this information, you still may not be too clear on whether antibiotics used in raising livestock are a threat to your health.

There is not a clear-cut answer to this yet because even scientists are currently still debating the merits and drawbacks of antibiotic use in agriculture.

Man holding up a question mark symbol

Thankfully right now, most of the research points toward the threat being fairly minimal:

  • While farmers do commonly catch resistant strains of bacteria from their animals (16), it is quite rare for this to happen to members of the general public. Consider this Danish study (17) which concluded that transmission to the public from contaminated food only took place 0.003% of the time.
  • Additionally, proper preparation of food can prevent most infections (18).
  • This study (19) states, “Although some antibiotics are used both in animals and humans, most of the resistance problem in humans has arisen from human use.” In other words, antibiotic use in healthcare settings or our homes and other industries is likely a larger contributor to the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains than livestock use.

So what should you do about it?

Should you buy antibiotic-free foods, or should you just stick with standard meat and dairy products?

Because research indicates that the actual risk posed by antibiotic use in livestock is minimal, you do not need to shop antibiotic-free.

If you are on a tight budget and saving money on food is more important for your family, you should be safe if you continue to buy non-organic products.

That being true, if you do have the budget, I would suggest that you purchase organic meat, dairy and eggs anyway.

Why? Here are a couple of good reasons:

  • Even though antibiotic use in animals may not be a major contributor to the problem of resistant bacteria, it is still a contributing factor. If you want to do your part to fight antibiotic resistance, avoiding livestock raised with antibiotics still helps.
  • While the risk of transmission of an antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria is only slightly lower when eating organic products, it is still lower.
  • Organic foods may not only be raised without antibiotics, but may also be raised or grown without the use of hormones or pesticides as well. Many products are also free-range. Factory-farmed meat is animal cruelty. Getting away from that is the more humane choice.

How can you be sure you are getting the best quality?

The trick is to look carefully at the labels on your organic food.

usda organic label

Here are several common types of labels you may see:

  • "Natural." This does not mean anything with reference to antibiotics. All it means is that the meat does not include any artificial additives or coloring agents. It is a good label to look for, but it does not certify the meat to be antibiotic-free.
  • "Antibiotic Free." Despite the fact that this sounds like it means the meat is free of antibiotics, it does not technically guarantee anything. This label is not USDA approved, so on a regulatory level it is meaningless.
  • "No Antibiotic Residues." See above. Once again, this label is not USDA approved, so you can never really be sure what it means.
  • "No Antibiotics Administered." This label is a lot more specific, and is usually trustworthy.
  • "USDA Organic." This is the best label you can look for. It is an official one, so you know exactly what it translates to. For meat to be certified as USDA Organic, it must never have been treated with antibiotics.

KEY POINTWhile antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a major health concern, antibiotic use in livestock appears to be only a minor causal factor.

The risk of transmission is quite low. You do not have to buy organic products, but if you can afford them, it is still a good idea.

​Other Ways To Prevent Antibiotic Resistance

If you want to do your part to prevent the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, there are other steps you can take outside of avoiding meat and daily products which may be contaminated.

​Action Tips For Healthcare

  • ​Educate yourself on antibiotic resistant illnesses.
  • ​Do not demand antibiotics if your doctor says you do not require them. Over-prescribing antibiotics for minor maladies is a large part of what caused antibiotic resistance in the first place.
  • ​If you have leftover antibiotics, do not save them to use for another illness. Throw them away. Do not share them with others either.
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    Do not use antibiotics prescribed to someone else.
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    Follow the directions given to you with your antibiotics. Take the correct dosage and do not skip doses. Make sure that you take the full course of antibiotics, even if you feel better.

​General Action Tips

  • ​Wash your hands thoroughly throughout the day, especially while you are out and about (for example eating at a restaurant).
  • ​Avoid sharing towels, razors, and other personal hygiene products with others in your household.
  • ​Shared surfaces should be washed regularly as well.
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    If someone in your household has an antibiotic-resistant infection, take extra care to prevent cross-contamination.
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    ​You may also wish to avoid purchasing products that contain antibacterial agents (soaps, etc.). Researchers are not certain right now how much these products may be contributing to antibiotic resistance, but an FDA panel has stated there is also insufficient evidence that these products offer any significant benefits.

KEY POINT: If you are concerned about antibiotic resistance, there are simple steps you can take at home, on the go, and at the doctor’s office.

If you do your part, you not only protect your own health, but also stem the development of resistant diseases which pose a global health threat.

​Other Food Concerns: Hormones and Pesticides

While you may be concerned about antibiotics in your food, there are actually some other contaminants that you should potentially be more concerned about.

Pesticides in food actually fall under the same umbrella as antibiotics in food when it comes to public perception.

Basically, they do pose a health risk, but it is a much more minor one than the average member of the public believes (20).

The greater threat of pesticide use is to the environment.

Of course, if you are concerned about the environment, you should consider steering clear of produce grown with pesticides.

A much greater concern for public health may be the use of hormones in food.

The highest intake of hormones through food is in milk products, around 60 to 80% (21).

The use of hormones in food production is banned in the EU and Serbia, but it is legal in the USA, Canada and Australia.

The FDA has stated that hormones in milk are not dangerous to human health, but research has shown a definite effect on the human body.

One study in 2010 discovered that children eating more protein from animal sources hit puberty earlier than those who ate less (22).

The study points out that, "early puberty onset is associated with hormone-related cancers."

Despite the FDA's recommendations, evidence at this point is mixed.

Not a lot of studies have been done in this area because it is hard to separate the effects of added hormones from natural hormones, proteins, and other compounds already present in meat and dairy products.

Because there is a general lack of information and because hormonal imbalances have become increasingly common over recent decades, it is best to play it safe and avoid foods with added hormones.

KEY POINT: Antibiotics are not the only contaminants that may be in your food.

Pesticides and hormones may also taint the food supply. 

Pesticides, like antibiotics, may have only a minor impact on human health, but they can be bad for the environment.

Research on the effects of hormones is lacking, but they may contribute to the development of hormone-related diseases.

​The Dangers of Antibiotics in Food May Be Overstated But Avoiding Contaminants in Your Food Is Still Ideal

For the most part, the public appears to have an exaggerated fear of antibiotics and pesticides in foods.

This concern has been leveraged effectively by organic food marketers who want to convince you that their products are pure and free of all contaminants.

Even an "antibiotic-free" meat or dairy product may still contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria, however.

Thankfully, you can minimize your risk.

Purchasing organic at least reduces your exposure to these bacteria, and may also get you away from hormones, pesticides, and inhumane factory farming practices.

Most importantly, you can take simple steps to safely prepare your food.

Most bacteria can be eliminated simply by washing your hands, cooking your foods at the proper temperatures, and storing leftovers properly.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria pose a serious health problem in today’s world, but if you use common sense while shopping and preparing your food, you can protect yourself and your family.

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  • Updated October 1, 2018

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