Antibiotics in your food – beyond bacterial resistance

10 January, 2013

There are many things to abhor about the way we raise the animals that provide us with meat, milk and eggs. The intensive livestock system is dirty, cruel and unethical. It damages the animals caught up it in and the environment around them.

We’ve ignored evidence of this harm for a long time, but it is becoming apparent that Karma is catching up with us. In upholding a system of drugged-up, intensively reared livestock – all in the name of cheap meat – we are fouling our own nests.

It’s not just the obvious visible dirt and disease that hangs like a cloud – sometimes literally – over intensive livestock facilities. It’s the toxic effects that are less immediately obviously that are now cutting a swathe across human health.

Antibiotic resistance is the first, most obvious and well-researched of these, but it’s not the only one.

It’s been known since the 1950s that feeding low doses of antibiotics to livestock increases their weight gain. The practice, dubbed subtherapeutic antibiotic therapy (STAT), lowers feed costs while increasing the price that farmers get for their meat. Now, after decades of antibiotic abuse on the farm scientists have begun to ask the obvious question: can antibiotic residues in our meat also make us gain weight?

It’s looking likely that the answer is yes.

Last summer a study in the journal Nature found that antibiotics altered the mix of bacteria in the intestines of mice and caused the rodents to build up more fat than normal.

In a separate human study, the same scientists reported a link between antibiotic use in babies younger than 6 months old and being overweight at age 3.

A third study last year found that, in humans, antibiotic overload can lead to a greater risk of inflammatory bowel disorders such as IBS and Crohn’s disease.

The human gut contains more than 100 trillion individual bacterium, from more than 500 different species – all in a delicate balance. This is our ‘gut microbiome’.

From immune-related disorders like allergies and asthma to the ability to fight off pathogens, our microbiome is now understood to be deeply involved in controlling our health.

While antibiotic residues are not the whole answer to why overweight and obesity have become epidemic, they appear to be an important piece of the puzzle, and one that reinforces the notion that all of our choices and actions have consequences.

If anyone asks me why I choose organic, it’s because increasingly the feel good factor that comes from making this choice is more than emotional – it quite literally can be the difference between health and disease.

Pat Thomas, Editor