Antibiotics Gone Wild: How unchecked use in animals can affect us

Many of us are meat eaters, after all who doesn’t love turkey sandwiches, bacon or a good steak when cooked right. But what’s in the meat we eat? Unfortunately, unless you’re eating organic and pasture raised most likely your food has been pumped full of antibiotics. In fact, half of the antibiotics being produced today are being given to animals not people. And that means those antibiotics are going to end up in your system too, specifically your gut. But why does that matter? How does it affect our health?

Firstly, it’s been found that increased use of antibiotic treatments produce a rise in the instances of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Take China as an example, which is the world’s largest producer and consumer of antibiotics. They don’t monitor the impacts that such rampant usage has on the environment but it has been found that their commercial pig farms are the breeding grounds for 149 unique antibiotic resistant genes that are 192 to 128,000 higher than their control sample counterparts.

This sounds like a recipe for disaster. The reliance on antibiotics has become such a global issue that the FDA and World Health Organization have both called for improved regulation of veterinary antibiotic use, citing that such potentially hazardous genes never remain local in their scope.

Farm Animals Antibiotics

Unfortunately, in China antibiotics are weakly regulated and are thus used 4 times more on their farms than in the United States. This wouldn’t be a problem if their antibiotic resistant strains were kept away from the general population. However, antibiotic resistant genes (ARGs) travel straight through the intestines of most animals and are poorly absorbed. From there they enter the nearly 700 million tons of manure produced in China alone. This manure ends up in fertilizers, in rivers and once potable drinking water, and is sold as compost around the world. ARGs tag along with them for the ride and can end up near crops anyone will eat (this means vegetarians aren’t necessarily safe from these ARGs either. Not if their food is being grown in its host). Basically ARGs can reach the world through drinking water, crops and interactions with farm workers. They’re a pollutant with potentially immediately harmful effects.

Because new antibiotics are so hard to manufacture, it’s become direly important to protect the stores we already have. Increasing the number of ARGs through the injudicious use of  antibiotics could have terrible consequences.

>>Quick Tip: Try purchasing grassfed beef and organic pork whenever possible.  Buying the meat frozen will also save on cost. 

What are the side effects of antibiotics?

What does this have to do with gut health? Well, everything. Your gut represents 80% of your immunity, so it’s your first line of defense. It’s also known as the “epicenter of antibiotic resistance”. Consequently it’s going to be the first and hardest hit if you ingest an ARG. Battling an ARG would simply not be the time to have poor gut health.

Especially since the administering of antibiotics that would be initially overseen would decrease the number and diversity of the microbiota in your intestines. Furthermore, ARGs are often transferrable. So a harmless strain already present in say, manure (or your gut) could have harmful genes transferred to it. And more ARGs in a wider variety is simply something the world doesn’t need.

So shop carefully, avoid processed products whose ingredients you can’t source, and wash and cook your ingredients thoroughly.  In a previous article I mentioned how fermented vegetables were able to combat certain vicious strains of e. coli that tried to breed within them, so they’re a great add in to any diet if you’re worried about bacterial contamination. This makes sense as they’re a source of probiotics, which I also noted were often used in augmenting treatment for particularly resilient or harmful strains of bacteria. More studies may highlight the treatment potential of specific probiotics, for now eating them can only help not harm. There’s no need to be paranoid or fearful about ARG contamination, it’s best to be aware and choose food options accordingly as well as keep up to date on any FDA regulations or recalls. Be a savvy eater, your gut (and thus overall) health can only benefit from it.