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When is "Antibiotic Free" not "Antibiotic Free?"

Posted by Julia Smith on

There's a scary story in the news this week. The headline reads:

"A Terrifying Superbug Just Showed Up on a US Farm for the First Time: The bacteria found in a hog operation is resistant even to some of our most powerful antibiotics." (Read the full story).

Thomas Van Boeckel, a spatial epidemiologist at Princeton University recently published a paper in which he predicts a 67% rise in the use of antibiotics globally by 2030 with many countries projected to double their use. The threat is real folks. With 80% of all antibiotics in Canada going into animal feed, it should come as no surprise that we are seeing more and more headlines like these. The World Health Organization warns that unless we dramatically change the way we consume antibiotics, we will be dealing with "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."

Antibiotics are routinely used prophylactically to counteract the effects of the conditions most animals are raised in on factory farms. They are also used as a growth promoter, increasing growth by about 13%. Overcrowded conditions inside barns are perfect breeding grounds for antibiotic resistance but this is the only way we can produce meat at a price most consumers are willing to pay. But the ultimate cost of cheap meat will be catastrophic. 

Consumers are becoming more educated about these issues and and the big greenwashing marketing machine is working hard to keep up with consumer demands for unmedicated meat. So while you're reading up on the dangers of antibiotic resistance, be sure to spend some time researching marketing claims. For example, meat can be labeled "antibiotic free" as long as there are no traces of antibiotics in the meat. That doesn't mean that the animals were raised without antibiotics. It just means that they stopped feeding antibiotics 30 days before the animal was slaughtered. You need to look for meat that was "raised without the use of antibiotics," a subtle but crucial difference. 

Big companies have big budgets and will carefully craft their marketing campaigns to make you feel like you are buying a product that is in line with your values. The best way to ensure that you are buying meat that is not being raised with irresponsible and reckless antibiotic use is to find a farmer you can trust. Kind of like the telephone game, the more hands your meat passes through between the farm and your plate, the less likely you are to get the true story. 

Price is a good starting point if you are feeling overwhelmed and don't know where to begin. If the meat in question isn't significantly more than the cheapest similar product, it probably isn't what you're looking for. Eating less, but better meat seems a small price to pay to ensure that we have antibiotics when we need it. 

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