UCSF Sustainability Stories

Latifat Apatira, MD MPH, October 2013

The Meat You Eat May Not be Safe

pillAs a follow-up to our piece in May on UCSF’s resolution to phase out meat raised with non-therapeutic antibiotics, third year medical resident, Latifat Apatira, MD MPH, offers her thoughts on this topic.

If you’re not vegan, guess what? The meat you eat may not be safe.

Farmers and ranchers of animal agriculture have been administering massive amounts of antibiotics to food animals for years. In fact, according to the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, eighty percent of antibiotics sold in the United States, which are also relevant to human medicine, aren’t used to treat illnesses in people; but rather are fed to livestock such as cows, pigs, turkeys and chickens for non-therapeutic purposes. 

Most are administered with limited veterinary oversight to foster animal growth and as a Band-Aid in the setting of unsanitary living conditions. There is now strong scientific consensus that this misuse of antibiotics including penicillins, fluoroquinolones, cephalosporins and tetracyclines has contributed to the development of increasing rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These bacteria, known as the dreaded superbugs, are often resistant to many classes of antibiotics and can pass this tolerance not only to their offspring, but to other species of bacteria.

Superbugs can travel in meat and poultry into stores, restaurants and kitchens where they’ve been shown to trigger foodborne illness and infections. Furthermore, the practice renders critically important antibiotics ineffective in treating human disease. For all these indications, non-therapeutic antibiotic use in food animals poses a serious threat to human health.

Many have come to the conclusion that antibiotic-resident bacteria in the supermarket meat aisles are probably a bad idea. The National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association have all advocated for ending the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotic in animal feed. In 2006, the European Union deemed such use unnecessary for the production of healthy, affordable meat and banned the practice entirely. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, multiple attempts over the past 30 years to enforce a similar ban in United States have been thwarted by big agri-business and big pharma.

In tune with some of the brightest minds in medicine and public health, last Spring UCSF’s Academic Senate unanimously approved a resolution calling on UCSF food services to phase out procurement of meat products produced with non-therapeutic antibiotics. The resolution also encourages all the other medical and academic University of California campuses to do the same.
UCSF Medical Center serves over 650,000 meals to the patients, faculty, students and staff annually and is poised to make a significant contribution in this arena. As part of the resolution, UCSF also requests individuals and local organizations to reduce or eliminate their own purchases of meat and poultry raised with non-therapeutic antibiotics.

Additionally, UCSF calls on its community to become familiar with the risks of non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food agriculture to help educate the general public and decision-makers on the importance of reserving antibiotics for therapeutic use alone.
Given the current economic and federal political climate within the United States, adopting such practices may not be easy; however, the increased demand for non-therapeutic antibiotics food animals by UCSF and other large institutions will hopefully expand the market and allow individuals to more affordably partake in the effort. The hope is that increased public pressure may prod meat producers to make their farming practices more sustainable. 

In the meantime, tips to help you avoid resistant organisms in meat can be found at the Environmental Working Group website: http://static.ewg.org/reports/2013/meateaters/ewg_meat_and_antibiotics_tipsheet.pdf