Antibiotics for Lunch?

Would you buy chicken meat labeled, “from poultry fed antibiotics”?

Today’s factory farms feed animals sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics as part of a daily diet to make the animals fat. For unknown reasons, small daily doses of antibiotics makes animals grow bigger with the same amount of food.

However, feeding farm animals sub-therapeutic doses is hazardous to human health. According to some experts, when we eat antibiotic-fed meat, we get fat, too.

And aside from possibly making us fat, antibiotic abuse in the meat industry also creates dangerous drug-resistant bacteria. When Alexander Fleming accepted his Nobel Prize for the antibiotic penicillin, he said, “the time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”

Yet by using subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to fatten livestock, factory farms deliberately underdose millions of animals each day. Factory farms thus expose microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drugs and make the microbes resistant to antibiotics. By the time these microbes reach humans, we no longer have a treatment.

In the United States, more antibiotics go to animals than to people. As a result, factory farms have bred antibiotic-resistant salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli. One out of five retail chicken breasts contains salmonella, and half of that salmonella is resistant to antibiotics.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), where I interned last summer, thinks consumers deserve to know what’s going into their food. They are petitioning the FDA to to require labels on meat produced with antibiotics.

Last Friday, HLS held an all-day conference on antibiotics in the food system. At the conference, ALDF litigation fellow Kelsey Eberly described ALDF’s antibiotic labeling petition. She suspects fewer people would eat, say, antibiotic-fed chicken if the package bore a “from poultry fed antibiotics” label.

Let’s hope the USDA agrees to require antibiotic labels on meat. In the meantime: Falafel, anyone?

Alene Anello is a 3rd year student at the Law School. She is the president of the Harvard Law School Student Animal Legal Defense Fund.

HLS’s Food Law Lab, Food Law and Policy Clinic, Animal Law & Policy Program, and Petrie-Flom Center worked with UCLA’s Program for Food Law and Policy to hold the conference.

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