The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Twitter Space spotlights overuse of antibiotics in beef production

PIRG’s Matt Wellington, focuses on McDonald’s failure to fulfill its antibiotic reduction commitments

Food & farming

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A story in Monday’s The Guardian, from that outlet and the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, provides much-needed insight into antibiotic use on American industrial farms. The report alleges that 10 of America’s largest beef producers, some of which supply fast food chains including McDonald’s, are overusing classes of antibiotics that are highly valuable to human health care. PIRG co-hosted a Twitter Space with the authors of the report and other stakeholders on Monday to discuss the findings and what they mean for public health. 

Antibiotics are a cornerstone of modern medicine. We rely on them to treat a lot of common infections and limit infection risk so that chemotherapy, surgeries and many other procedures are safe. When the drugs are overused in meat production and other settings, the bacteria they don’t kill can quickly adapt and develop resistance to them, so, over time, these medicines lose their effectiveness at healing people and saving lives. 

Ben Stockton, one of the article’s authors, said, “We are really entering a post-antibiotic world and there are already people who are having fairly major complications after what should be fairly routine procedures because of AMR [antimicrobial resistance].”

Nearly two-thirds of the medically important antibiotics sold in the United States go to meat production. That’s why the TBIJ’s report that beef producers use so many antibiotics with the highest designation of importance from the World Health Organization (WHO) is such a grave concern. The article details how reducing the use of what the WHO calls “highest priority critically important” antibiotic classes would help preserve their effectiveness. However, Dr. Payal Patel, an infectious disease physician who sits on the President’s Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, emphasized that progress on reducing antibiotic use in agriculture is lagging behind corresponding efforts in health care: 

In medicine, we’ve made some major steps forward with the help of partners like CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], but we’re still making baby steps in agriculture,” Dr. Patel said.

According to the TBIJ piece, McDonald’s, the largest hamburger chain in the world, continues to purchase beef from producers who use those antibiotics that the WHO deems most important to human health care. If McDonald’s was living up to its commitments, it would be a very different situation. In 2018, McDonald’s promised to set targets for reducing the use of medically important antibiotics across much of its global beef supply chain by the end of 2020. The company failed to meet that deadline, and in its 2021-2022 progress report, the fast food giant appeared to be backtracking on its commitment to set concrete antibiotic reduction targets. 

Public health faces even greater risks. In 2019, antibiotic-resistant infections were the third-leading cause of death globally. The TBIJ piece ratchets up pressure on major beef buyers including McDonald’s to stick to their promises on reducing antibiotic use in beef production. 

Matt Wellington, PIRG’s Public Health Campaigns Director, expressed gratitude for the report.

“Stories like yours that came out today that highlight the importance of reducing medically important antibiotics, especially some of our most highly prized antibiotics classes in beef production, certainly helps to hold their feet to the fire, right,” said Wellington. “It helps folks like me go back to McDonalds and say, ‘This is top of mind for the public. It’s top of mind for medical professionals.’” 

As PIRG and other groups urge McDonald’s and other fast food chains to phase out antibiotic use from their beef supply chains, it was helpful to hear from a rancher who abandoned industrial farming practices more than 25 years ago for a more sustainable approach. 

“What we do now is biomimicry the emulation of nature,” said Will Harris, the owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia. “It’s a very imperfect emulation, admittedly, but having animals out, eating natural food. Instead of [feeding] grain concentrate to cattle… they graze growing grass.” 

Everyone – not just those in agriculture, fast food, and health care – can make a difference. Here’s what you can do to help address this public health crisis. Many people are unfamiliar with antibiotic resistance, so educate your friends and family about why it matters. Live up to your words by purchasing only meat produced without antibiotic overuse: You can refer to the labeling guide in Superbugs in Stock to help navigate the products at your local grocery store or meat counter. When you eat out, patronize restaurants that serve only responsibly raised meat.

Wellington laid out what’s at stake in the choices we make as consumers: “This is about valuing the foundations of modern medicine. It’s about valuing the need for effective antibiotics to save people’s lives over buying a slightly cheaper hamburger.”

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Louis Sokolow

Public Health Campaigns, Associate, PIRG

Louis works on research, writing and coalition building for PIRG's public health campaigns. Louis lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, and loves birding across New England, choral singing (especially Dvořák) and watching the Red Sox.

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