McDonald's serves over 69 million customers a day in more than 100 countries, selling 2.5 billion burgers a year, or 6.5 million a day. A vast majority of Americans, 85 percent, eat from McDonald's once a year or more. But along with that beef patty, cheese, lettuce, onions, and ketchup on a sesame seed bun, you may be getting a dose of antibiotics.

These powerful antibiotics are used on beef cattle to treat or prevent disease, but also because they make the animals grow faster by suppressing their immune system, which in turn allows rapid cell turnover.

But when the antibiotics from beef or animal products get into the human population, it can allow the growth of so-called antibiotic-resistant "superbugs," which have vast implications on human health, according to the World Health Organization. Specifically in cases where you truly need antibiotics to knock out infections overuse of antibiotics (even in food sources) can potentially compromise how our bodies are able to fight off infectious diseases, especially those driven by bacteria such as pneumonia.

In 2017, The FDA banned the use of medical antibiotics in animals raised for food, including beef, pork, chicken, and all farmed livestock, to try to curtail the use of medical-grade antibiotics in our food system. This was due to increasing concern that the practice was spawning new generations of antibiotic-resistant superbugs that could outwit, outlast and outkill the essential medicines in our medical arsenal to treat these powerful infections.

Infections that are strong enough to kill humans have become widespread, as we saw most recently during the global pandemic with the secondary killer, bacterial pneumonia. The coronavirus may not have been fatal in itself, but the virus was able to set off a chain of events in the body that led to inflammation and bacterial infection that proved fatal for millions.

Suppliers to McDonald's Taco Bell and Walmart Named

The use of antibiotics in beef is controversial enough to warrant the World Health Organization to warn against its use. These highly potent antibiotics have found their way into beef used to make our burgers at McDonald's, our tacos at Taco Bell, and our packaged meat sold for home consumption at Walmart.

This was the bombshell finding in a new report just released by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and published in The Guardian. That investigation revealed that despite the FDA's 2017 regulation, farmers are getting around this restriction by getting sign-off from veterinarians willing to allow widespread antibiotic use.

Why do farmers want to pump antibiotics into their cattle? These medicines also spur quicker growth, meaning that factory farmers can raise hundreds and thousands more animals faster, and yield more revenue from those farmed animals by bringing them to slaughter on a shorter timetable.

Antibiotics create faster animal growth by inhibiting the growth of microbes in the gastrointestinal tract in the host, which allows faster cell turnover. But the food chain does not end there, since these same medicines end up in our food, and create a potential threat to humans.

When beef you eat on a regular basis contains a high level of antibiotics that are high enough to be measured, it means you are essentially living on antibiotics, and when you finally need a dose, it may not work the way it's designed to. Your health is compromised, and you become a host to a new powerful strain of microbes that is able to fight back against antibiotics and live to kill again.

Suppliers of beef to McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Walmart are buying their meat from large farms that use antibiotics linked to the spread of superbugs, the investigation found.

The report, quoted in The Guardian, from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, uncovers antibiotic use in cattle sold by Cargill, JBS, and Green Bay farms. These meat producers regularly supply beef to McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Walmart.

The type of drugs in use are called HP-CIAs, which are "so essential to human medicine that their use in livestock farming should be stopped," the World Health Organization has warned. These powerful antibiotics are often the last line of defense to knock out serious bacterial infections in humans, so their overuse can ultimately make them less effective.

Antibiotics and Superbugs

We saw how "superbugs" can become deadly during the pandemic when treatment was unable to knock out disease-causing infections that can be critically life-threatening and fatal.

The use of lifesaving antibiotics in humans got attention when secondary infections took over from the coronavirus that made people sick and their immune systems went into overdrive, creating inflammation that threatened their lungs and capacity to get oxygen to vital organs. While antibiotics don't kill viruses, they do work against secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and other serious ailments that were a direct result of COVID-19.

Getting antibiotics out of our meat and food supply was deemed the "highest priority" back in 2017 when Congress passed a law making it illegal to treat beef cattle with large doses, in order to curtail the creation of superbugs resistant to antibiotics. Yet somehow the practice is back, this report has revealed.

Antibiotics Promote Growth in Animals

“The reckless overuse of medically important antibiotics on factory farms is a major contributor to this deadly public health threat,” said Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who has advocated for more controls on food production and transparency on labels that would let consumers know where their food comes from and what is in it.

“Giant agribusinesses have built a system that is dependent on this misuse of antibiotics to maximize their profits, with no regard to the serious harm they are causing," he added.

Farmers are allowed to use antibiotics to treat or prevent disease in animals, though they need a vet to write a prescription. However many farmers keep their animals on the medicine their entire lives, since using antibiotics promotes growth.

Five different HP-CIAs have been found in meat from Cargill –– McDonald's beef supplier. Cargill maintains that it only uses a safe level of antibiotics in the meat it sells. In a corporate statement, the company responded;

“Judicious use of antibiotics prevents sick animals from entering the food supply, and ensures that animals do not unnecessarily suffer from disease." It added: "While we support the responsible use of human antibiotics in food production, we are committed not to use antibiotics that are critically important for human medicines as defined by the World Health Organization.”

Antibiotic Resistance and Disease

Before the investigations revealed the latest findings, the WHO warned that these vital medical antibiotics should not be deployed in livestock farming because the drugs are essential to human treatment.

Using these medical antibiotics in factory farming is likely to diminish the efficacy of these life-saving antibiotics.

Antibiotic resistance accounts for 35,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, making it one of the country's most significant health risks.

The Guardian noted that farmers are permitted to use antibiotics for cattle to fight or prevent the spread of certain diseases within the United States, requiring a prescription from a licensed veterinarian. These antibiotics were previously used to accelerate growth, but the United States government banned this practice in 2017.

Pandemic Risk and Animal Agriculture

The analysis of the data found that meat from the 10 largest meat packers all contained at least one HP-CIA –– and some samples contained as many as seven different HP-CIAs.

These antibiotics are commonly used to accelerate growth in livestock, allowing major meat companies to produce more meat for less money. Research has shown that this practice can lead to a significantly increased risk of animal-borne illnesses that harm human health.

This November, a separate report revealed that accelerated meat production increases the risk of long-term issues in livestock and poultry, including animal-borne pandemics.

For more plant-based happenings, visit The Beet's News articles. 

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