Does Beefing Up Our MRSA Protection Mean More Meat-lessness?

Patty Khuly, DVM
Published: April 19, 2011
Share this:

Ever wonder whether the antibiotics we give our comestible cattle, swine and poultry might be giving us the antibiotic resistance blues? Most medically minded Americans think that might be the case. Otherwise, why would the American Medical Association (AMA) support what it argues is a scientifically-defensible ban on the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in animal agriculture species?

To the AMA's point: A recent study out of the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona, funded by the industrial agriculture industry-critical Pew Charitable Resources Trust, points to the prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the meat we may be buying in our supermarkets.

Yes, MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) bacteria, the "superbugs" we've widely feared and reviled for their dangerous infections, are apparently living unchecked within some of our meat animals. According to this recent study, almost 50 percent of the meat available in our supermarkets might be tainted by this resistant bacteria.

Which could mean two things: (1) the antibiotics we feed to our meat animals are creating genetically favorable conditions for the kind of super-bacteria we've always worried might eventually result from such biologically competitive circumstances, and (2) that these resistant bacteria might actually lead to a public health hazard.

To be clear: This research is too limited to prove anything definitive one way or another (predictably, the limited sample size of this study has led the meat industry to declare the study "inconsequential"). Nor does finding MRSA in all this meat mean that humans are being infected by it.

This study is, however, a step in the direction most scientists expect will lead us to the inevitable: the smoking gun that finally proves that antibiotics in animal feeds lead directly to the kind of MRSA infections humans are increasingly beset by.

No, it's not conclusive. Nor is any smoking gun kind of evidence anywhere to be found. And yet the writing's undeniably on the wall: The science behind "the animals-are-safer-to-eat-when-we-feed-them-drugs" is being eroded away — more rapidly now that science is rushing to stem the tide of superbugs.

Those ag industry apologists who would deny that the kind of drugs we are feeding to our meat animals are having a deleterious effect on public health, while unlikely to readily accept that MRSA infections come from animals, are carrying a flickering torch.

Could be they're just optimistic. But if big tobacco's comeuppance in recent decades is any guide, the resistance on the industrial animal agriculture front has more to do with unethical obstructionism than anything else.

Which is why I choose to eat less meat. After all, I figure that consuming fewer calories in the form of animal protein — especially should they be limited to humanely raised/slaughtered calories — likely means that my MRSA exposure is lower. Yet until we find the exact causative connection between antibiotics in animal feed and bacterial resistance in humans, I guess my risk will just have to remain just as big ag promises: "inconsequential."

But then, big ag probably still smokes, too...

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: A cow by publicenergy