There are more ways than one that antibiotics end up in food

Posted by
May 2, 2013

While the big media “meat” of last year, pink slime, a filler in ground beef, got some extreme press exposure, there’s another additive present in meat – and chicken and pork and even farmed fish — that didn’t exactly ‘hit the fan’ as much as “mechanically separated beef scraps and connective tissue treated with ammonia hydroxide” did.

Maybe it was the name, or perhaps the disgusting graphics or celebrity chefs, that tipped the scale on the “slime” issue, but it certainly isn’t the only concern for those who eat meat.

The use of antibiotics in meat and poultry is not something industry likes to talk about, even to the Food and Drug Administration. The agency, which routinely tests for antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat, really doesn’t know too much else about what’s going on, according to former FDA Commissioner David Kessler.

Kessler commented in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that the “crisis of antibiotic resistance…(is) getting worse,” and apparently all the FDA knows about these drugs is that food animals are being administered antibiotics to the tune of  30 million pounds annually. “We don’t know much more except that,” Kessler said, “rather than healing sick animals, these drugs are often fed to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise because they live in dangerously close quarters on top of one another’s waste.” In Kessler’s phrase, they’re a means of producing “cheaper meat.”

But there’s an additional avenue by which food animals take in antibiotics that Kessler didn’t mention in his Times piece, a “side effect” so to speak of the food they eat. It’s a practice that is not regulated, monitored or reported, according to two consumer-watchdog groups who recently filed a citizen petition with the FDA to try and have it curtailed.

The corn, car and meat connection

The petition, filed in March by The Center for Food Safety and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), seeks to halt the use of antibiotics in the making of what’s called “distillers grains,” the leftover corn mash and slurry from ethanol production that is sold for animal feed.

It seems that ethanol production, which involves yeast and fermentation, also breeds bacteria, something that lowers production levels. To try and control this, antibiotics, such as penicillin and tetracycline, are added. And tests performed by the FDA have shown these drugs remain in the ethanol ‘leftovers’ fed to cattle, chickens and pork at “significant” levels.

According to the groups’ petition, “FDA studies, industry-funded studies, and nonprofit organizations’ studies all confirm that distillers grains sold as animal feed contain antibiotics.” The petition further states that these antibiotic residues are “wholly illegal” under federal laws and “unnecessary” to produce the fuel additive.

And this is no small amount of feed they’re talking about either. An IATP report from 2012 notes that the massive increase in ethanol production has also resulted in making more than 34 metric tons per year of distillers grains, most of which go to feed beef and dairy cattle.

But that’s something the people who raise those cattle may be unaware of, Elisabeth Holmes, staff attorney for The Center for Food Safety, told me in a phone interview. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to file the petition. The pharmaceutical manufacturers know and the ethanol manufacturers know, but we don’t know if a lot of the producers who are feeding this know that there’s antibiotic residue in it.”

“We really need to take extra sources (of antibiotics) into account,” said Holmes.

And what those “extra” sources might be is anyone’s guess. Since such uses are not regulated,  the FDA doesn’t track them and drug makers aren’t required to disclose them, Holmes noted. What the FDA does know for sure, however, is that antibiotics are present in distillers grains. In 2008 and again in 2010 the agency analyzed samples of the feed for drug residues, finding positive results both times.

However, “they’ve done nothing since those studies,” said Holmes, “and they’ve done nothing in response to the petition we filed.” She added that there are “perfectly viable alternatives” to antibiotics that ethanol manufacturers can use, but “no legal requirement that they switch over” to them.

Holmes’ suggestion to those who eat meat is to choose sustainable or organic varieties “where antibiotic use is not allowed.”

In the meantime, as Kessler pointed out, “We need to know more about the use of antibiotics in the production of our meat and poultry. The results could be a matter of life and death.”