Children at Risk: The Powerful Impact of Antibiotics in the Food Supply

According to an article written by Julia Calderone and published in Consumer Reports last year, “Those resistant bacteria can end up in the food supply and can infect you—leading to serious, potentially deadly illness. Infection can come from touching or eating undercooked contaminated meat or plants grown with fertilizer made from animals treated with antibiotics, or by drinking tainted groundwater. Studies even suggest that resistant bacteria could be transmitted through the air.”

The problem is being made even more challenging by the high crossover of antibiotics used for the farm animals and those used on people. The National Institutes of Health reports about 80 percent of antibiotics used on livestock are the same ones used on humans.

However, the amount of antibiotics used in animals is much higher than in humans. For example, in 2012 more than 32 million pounds of antibiotics were used in animals. Compare that figure to 7.25 million pounds of antibiotics used for humans.

Those questioning antibiotic use in livestock also cite the easy availability of such drugs. While humans need a medical prescription to purchase them, farmers can buy antibiotics for animals over the counter with no oversight or accountability.

“The indiscriminate use of antibiotics without a prescription or the input of a veterinarian puts the health of children at risk,” said AAP’s Dr. Paulson.

There has been more governmental oversite on this issue, but much of it is voluntary.

For their part, food suppliers are beginning to respond to public demand on their own. More antibiotic options for meat and poultry are available in grocery stores, and when possible parents are encouraged to purchase these for their families.

Large chain restaurants are also making progress in phasing out antibiotics in their food offerings, which is good news for kids and their parents. Just a few months ago, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the nation’s second-largest fast-food chicken chain, announced all their chicken menu items would be antibiotic free by 2018.

Previously, McDonald’s had made a commitment to serving only chicken raised without antibiotics, and Chick-fil-A, the leading fast food chicken chain, announced that by the end of 2019 its chicken would be totally antibiotic free. Other chains are making headway, and these positive advances are highlighted in a 2014 study.

While these are important steps, many in public health say more needs to happen, and quickly.

The high cost of doing nothing may help move the issue forward. The annual costs attributed to infections that are antibiotic resistant are as much as $34 billion.