Antibiotics in Food: Should You Be Concerned?

May 15, 2020

‘Antibiotic-free’ has become a health-food buzz-phrase recently. But why are antibiotics used in food and should consumers be worried?

In late 2017, major Australian chicken producer Hazeldene’s made headlines when it launched The Bare Bird, a range of chickens raised without the use of antibiotics. The chickens, which are also free-range and fed a vegetarian diet, now reach millions of consumers via Coles and Woolworths supermarkets in NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

The Bare Bird is the highest-profile example to date of ‘antibiotic-free’ marketing in Australia. At the time of launch, Hazeldene’s said The Bare Bird was a bid to address growing consumer concerns about antibiotic resistance. It cited the World Health Organisation, which has called antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today”.

Yet many Australians still regularly eat meat that has been raised or treated with antibiotics. Should they be worried about their health and the health of others? To understand the issue, it’s necessary to look at the history of the use of antibiotics in food.

Industrial Farming

By the 1940s, the drugs we now refer to as antibiotics were being used to treat infections in humans and animals. In 1940, veterinarians treated a mass outbreak of udder infection at the New York World’s Fair using gramicidin, while in Europe the wonder-drug penicillin was deployed to treat mastitis in cows during World War II.

Then, in 1950, American scientists made a significant discovery: adding antibiotics to livestock feed could make animals grow more quickly. Soon, antibiotics were being used as growth supplements in farm feed across the Western world.

At the same time, industrial farming was becoming more intensive as the West’s appetite for meat increased. Farm animals were being reared in more crowded conditions, which bred disease. Soon, antibiotics took on a third use in farming: not only were they used as growth boosters and deployed when an outbreak of disease struck, but they were also administered pre-emptively to ward off infections.

Farm and men shaking hands - Antibiotics in food

Antibiotic Resistance

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the use of antibiotics in food was seriously questioned. Around that time, medical professionals became aware of a phenomenon known as antibiotic resistance: put simply, it’s when infections grow accustomed to antibiotics and become immune to them. These so-called ‘superbugs’ can pose a grave threat to vulnerable populations.

Since the phenomenon was first identified, efforts to control it have focused on excessive antibiotic use by humans. But there is growing concern the widespread use of antibiotics in food is making the situation worse for humans and animals. And time is running out: according to a UK government report, antibiotic resistance could lead to 10 million deaths per year by 2050 if left uncontrolled.

Many governments, including Australia’s, are taking action by not allowing meat producers to use certain antibiotics important to human medicine. But other antibiotics can still be freely used to rear animals.

Paddock to Plate

It’s important to note that meat produced from animals reared using antibiotics can’t be sold in Australia if it contains significant traces of those antibiotics. But some consumers would prefer to eat meat untouched by antibiotics at any stage in its life, either for personal health reasons or out of a sense of collective responsibility.

In Australia, one way to ensure your food is antibiotic-free is to choose certified organic produce. “Antibiotics are a strict no-no when it comes to organic certification,” says Katrina Hobbs, CEO of chicken producer Inglewood Farms.

“Obviously, biosecurity is vital when it comes to managing a farm like ours,” says Katrina. “In addition to that, there are many things that we do to promote the health of the chickens, because a healthy chicken has a strong immune system and they fight any challenge naturally rather than by constantly using antibiotics.”

She adds: “I believe antibiotic use is a concern and it’s something that we don’t want to go anywhere near. It’s not about how close to the shade of grey we can go.”

Consumers should assume any meat not explicitly labelled ‘antibiotic-free’ or ‘organic’ has been reared using the drugs, Katrina says. If in doubt, shoppers should opt for a product with organic certification.

“Organic certification is the only way to ensure producers are doing what they say they’re doing,” she says. “Other claims can be difficult to check.”

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