People who live downwind from cattle feedlots are familiar with the smell of crap in the air, and Texas Tech researchers took it upon themselves to study that crap. The researchers analyzed dust samples taken near 10 cattle feedlots in Texas and found something disturbing, according to a recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives: the gene sequence for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It's been common knowledge for a long time that meat producers feed their animals antibiotics to make them fatter and less likely to get infections. But this is the first study showing that the resulting antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or "superbugs," can go airborne.
"I think it's important to note that worldwide there's this trend toward the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We know we are sort of losing the arms race against microbes," says Philip Smith, one of the researchers and a Texas Tech ecotoxicologist.
"If we as a society are interested in protecting the efficacy of antibiotics long-term, then we need to have all the information we can acquire about how antibiotic resistance is spread in the environment," he adds. (He says he could not comment on what his research means for beef-eaters. "One thing I know about cattle is I like them with a little salt and medium rare.")
In 1977, the Food and Drug Administration began looking into regulating the antibiotics that the meat industry gives farm animals but then decided not to do anything. It took 30 plus years and lawsuits filed by environmental groups for the agency to reconsider. Just last week, the White House released a National Action Plan For Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, a plan that the National Resources Defense Council says looks good in some ways but ultimately "fails to include real action to end the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture."
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Still, given the growing public concern about the issue, it's become fashionable lately for some mainstream food companies to nix selling meat from animals given antibiotics. This month, McDonald's announced that it would only serve chicken raised without human antibiotics within two years, and Chipotle has already built its brand on "responsibly raised" meat.
The Texas beef industry, however, is clearly not ready for any of McDonald's or Chipotle's crazy hippy-talk. "I do question the data [from the Texas Tech study] and I've heard other scientists question some of the data," says Ross Wilson, president of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He says that the industry is not ignoring concerns about antibiotic-resistance, however. "The industry is already gathering information to have greater insight into the issue of microbial resistance," he says. He referred additional questions to Dr. Sam Ives, an association member and veterinarian who used to work at Cactus Feeders, the huge, privately owned cattle feed yard headquartered in Amarillo.
"The thing is, these drugs are prescribed by veterinarians," Ives says, describing the use of the drugs as judicious. "The veterinarian may have no direct oversight of the usage, but the veterinarian knows how much of the product is going into the operation." But Ives is not aware of any data that shows how many antibiotics are used overall by the beef industry. He says that the industry relies on the FDA for guidance. "Let the regulators help us to better understand how to use the product," he says. Seeing as the FDA's plan for reducing antibiotics in livestock depends on a "voluntary process," that sounds about right.
Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein.