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By Andrew Gunther

Andrew Gunther-finalAs the holiday season approaches, it’s important to consider the source of your meat at your family gatherings. Today, a staggering 70–80 percent of all the antibiotics produced in the United States are used on food-producing animals. In fact, we use more antibiotics per pound of meat produced than any other nation in the world.

While using antibiotics on animals may lower the price tag on industrial protein, scientists around the world now emphatically link this routine misuse of medically-important antibiotics in the intensive farming industry to the rise of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria. By keeping so many animals in crowded, stressful, and unsanitary conditions, and feeding regular low doses of antibiotics to prevent inevitable diseases, these industrial-scale operations are actually providing the near-perfect conditions for the development of some very dangerous—and potentially untreatable—antibiotic-resistant strains of diseases like E. coli and salmonella. This means that when we get infected, there are fewer and fewer options for treatment.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been warning for years that the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is one of the gravest threats known to human health. The U.K. government’s chief medical officer also recently said that the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria could cause a global health catastrophe that ranks alongside the threat of climate change or terrorism. And according to a new report published this week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least two million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics—and at least 23,000 people die—every year in our country as a direct result of these infections.

Dangerous multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria are now routinely found in the food we are eating on a day-to-day basis, and the risks are growing all the time. A report by the Environmental Working Group in April 2013 revealed high levels of potentially life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria on raw supermarket meat. Similarly, in June 2013, the respected Consumer Reports found potential disease-causing organisms in 90 percent of ground turkey samples purchased from stores nationwide—and many of the bacteria they identified were resistant to more than three antibiotic drug classes. The fact is that we are on the verge of something very scary indeed: a world where antibiotics will no longer work, and where common bacterial diseases will once again kill unabated, potentially returning us to the medical equivalent of the 18th century.

AWA Logo Final WebsiteSo what can you do? This holiday season, take a closer look at the source of your food. Chances are, that free turkey you’ve earned with your grocery store club card was raised using routine antibiotics. Consider high-welfare, pastured-raised products, and know your labels and your food. Animal Welfare Approved, a food label for meat and dairy products that come from animals raised according to the highest environmental and welfare standards, is a useful starting point. AWA has great resources, including our free Food Labels Exposed app which helps decipher common claims such as “antibiotic-free,” and an online search feature to locate farmers and products near you. Until the intensive meat industry is forced to introduce the kind of fundamental changes to their confinement livestock operations that negate the need for any routine antibiotic use, the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria will remain as great as ever.

Andrew Gunther is program director at Animal Welfare Approved, a nonprofit program that audits, certifies, supports and promotes family farmers raising their animals under the highest welfare standards, outdoors on pastures or ranges. The AWA program is rated by Consumer Reports as the only “highly meaningful” food label for farm animal welfare, outdoor access, and sustainability.