Will we celebrate Thanksgiving this year with an antibiotic-free Turkey?
Cargill, one of the largest food companies in the world, announced last week that it will be ending the use of antibiotics to promote growth of turkeys it sells. The company cites growing consumer interest in antibiotic-free birds.
If you are asking yourself why in the world did turkeys regularly ingest antibiotics with their feed, you’re not alone. Fifty years ago, growers who treated their sick birds with antibiotics discovered an interesting side effect. The antibiotics made the turkeys (and chickens, and cows and pigs) grow faster!
Fast forward to 2014, when 80% of all antibiotics sold in the US is for farm animals. While at first it seems like a good idea, there is a dark side to antibiotics. It’s called antiobiotic resistance. Starting in the 1970′s, antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria started to emerge. An arms race of sorts began to develop, where newer and more powerful antibiotics worked for a while, until a new bacteria popped up that was unaffected. Evolution on steroids, if you will.
The threat of bacterial resistance is very real. Imagine yourself not being able to undergo important surgery because the risk of infection is too high – no antibiotic would be able to keep you safe from these killer strains of bacteria.
Late last year, the FDA issued guideline to livestock growers, urging them to voluntarily phase out the use of antibiotics for growth. Industry observers would say the FDA’s guidelines came about 20 years too late.
But back to Cargill. While the announcement seems like good news, for all practical purposes, the actual amount of antibiotics could actually stay steady. Sick turkeys will continue receiving the drugs. Unfortunately, many – if not most – birds lead very sick lives because of the crowded and dirty conditions in which they are raised. Sick birds can lead to sick humans – In 2011, Cargill recalled 36 million pounds (!) of ground turkey due to a salmonella outbreak.
If we really want to rid ourselves of antibiotics in animal husbandry, the entire system needs to change. CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) need to disappear and animals need to grow with ample room and outdoor access. That way they won’t get sick in the first place.