When you sit down to eat a burger, a steak, or another piece of meat, you don't imagine that your plate is full of antibiotics, but it is. And there's a tie to this fact and the pandemic, which makes us wonder: Why is the meat industry being allowed to drug Americans without their knowledge, and what can we do to stop it? Other than stop eating meat?

That was the question after reading a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council that exposes the fact that the meat industry in America is overusing antibiotics and putting unhealthy amounts of drugs into our food system.

The 14-page report, titled “Better Burgers: Why It’s High Time the U.S. Beef Industry Kicked Its Antibiotics Habit,” dives into a variety of topics concerning the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in cows and chickens intended for human consumption.

First, the report breaks down how beef "feedlots" -- essentially the animals' kibble-- regularly contain "important antibiotics," and create antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cause infections that are hard to treat, and death, in Americans. the overview of the study states that the problem is dire:

"Antibiotic resistance poses one of the gravest threats to our health. It undermines the efficacy of antibiotics, and therefore the ability to safely perform transplants, joint replacements, C-sections, dialysis, and other procedures requiring reliable drugs to treat the infections that often complicate them. Already, people in the United States experience at least 2.8 million infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, resulting in up to 162,044 deaths."

Anything that weakens our ability to fight infection is dangerous

The farmers are aware of the issue, the report continues, since these drugs in the feed often make cattle sick, and meatpackers stay mum on their antibiotic use. In America, we also use antibiotics more frequently than in many other countries around the world, indicating that our standards for antibiotic use in animals need to be stricter so that when humans need the drugs, they work. How does the antibiotic from the animal get into our systems? It's direct: When a cow is processed and becomes your steak or burger, the drugs are passed directly into humans in the meat.

"The problems with the overuse of antibiotics that are important to people is ingrained in the industry, and they have the power to change it, but it's going to take leadership, and they haven't been willing to take that on," explains the report author David Wallinga, MD, a senior health advisor with NRDC, in a statement published on the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy website.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread to humans when they handle raw beef or consume undercooked meat, and farmers and farm workers can be exposed while working at the plants, putting them at increased risk. Additionally, people who live by feedlots, “downstream or downwind,” can be affected when the antibiotic-resistant bacteria is transported into the air, water, and soil, and subsequently inhaled, or ingested when we eat the food that grows in this soil.

For most of us, the risk from superbugs that are resistant to bacteria is highest when we buy and eat grocery store beef, though during COVID-19 the detrimental impacts these practices have on farmworkers and the communities that surround feedlots has also been clear.

This is especially disturbing since a high proportion of meat processing workers -- upwards of 20,000 people, got sick inside the plants, causing major companies to close plants and meat shortages in mid to late May. And while COVID-19 is a virus, and not caused by bacteria, it's the secondary complications -- such as pneumonia and other infections are caused by bacterial infections and inflammation, and that's where the overexposure to anti-biotics comes into play. If you are constantly bombarded with antibiotics, through meat, they stop working when actual infections take hold, and your body does not respond. That is how immunity is compromised.

The report calls out the poultry industry, where there have been marked improvements: It estimates (with some caveats) that the use of medically important antibiotics by the U.S. chicken industry has dropped around 73% from 2013 to 2017. Let this set the precedent for other animal farming industries to follow suit.

Overdosing Antibiotics in beef is not necessary and creates sicker cows and humans

At the end of the paper, Wallinga urges that action be taken to promote beef from cattle raised without the routine use of antibiotics. Additionally, he makes the plea that conventional beef producers rethink their antibiotic policies to act more responsibly, work with third-party certification programs to verify responsible antibiotic use protocols, and support the creation of national antibiotic use reduction targets and a nationwide system for keeping tabs on antibiotic use at farms. In conclusion, he also asks that the FDA and USDA do more to stop the unnecessary use of antibiotics in our food system.

In recent months amid the coronavirus outbreak, there’s been growing concern about consuming meat. In May, doctors warned consumers that coronavirus may be able to spread through meat products. Meanwhile, the meat industry could stand to take a blow to profits of some $20 billion, as more consumers choose plant-based substitutes. There’s also increasing concern that factory farms could cause another pandemic as more and more health experts and doctors urge people to go plant-based in light of the global health crisis.

For most people eating a plant-based diet, learning about the link between coronavirus and “Big Ag” and the rampant overuse of antibiotics in our nation’s beef system is enough to inspire us to convince our loved ones to stay away from meat for the foreseeable future. In order to be even more persuasive, forward this piece and the  Natural Resources Defense Council’s report to all the burger lovers in our lives. And throw a few more plant-based burgers on the grill this summer.

For how to go plant-based, check out The Beginner's Guide to a Plant-Based Diet


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