Ethical Eating: Antibiotics

Written By Christy Brissette

In my first post on Ethical Eating I looked at how added hormones in meat and milk products may affect our health. Now let's put the use of antibiotics in the food supply under the microscope! Here’s what you need to know to make the choice that’s right for you.

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are substances that kill bacteria or prevent it from growing. Doctors prescribe antibiotics to treat infections caused by bacteria.

How are antibiotics used in farming?

Antibiotics are given to farm animals and livestock such as cows, pigs and chickens, fish and honey bees to treat infections and prevent disease. Sometimes antibiotics may even be sprayed on fruit. This practice helps keep the animals healthy and our food supply safe.

Image of a group of pigs on a farm
Photo by US Department of Agriculture via flickr Creative Commons

Antibiotics are sometimes used to promote growth in farm animals in Canada and the US. Using antibiotics to promote animal growth is an “off label” use, meaning Health Canada and the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) have not approved of this application. In the European Union, antibiotics are only given to sick animals.

Farmers can purchase antibiotics at farm supply stores or import antibiotics from other countries to use on their animals without reporting it to the government. Only Quebec farmers require a prescription from a veterinarian to get antibiotics. Because there isn’t a system in place to monitor the use of antibiotics, we don’t know which, how much, and for what reasons antibiotics are being used.

How are antibiotic levels in food regulated?

In Canada, meat, poultry, eggs and milk products are routinely tested by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to make sure amounts of antibiotics are within safe levels set by Health Canada. If a food tests too high in antibiotics, it will not be sold or will be recalled. To meet this requirement, animals are not given antibiotics for a certain period of time before they are slaughtered. If dairy cows or hens are given antibiotics, the milk or eggs they produce while being treated will not be sold.

What are the concerns?

Some of the antibiotics given to livestock are only used in animals, such as those used in Canadian poultry.

The concern is that some other antibiotics used in the food supply are also very important in treating infections in people. This has raised questions about whether overusing antibiotics in human medicine and in the food supply can create “superbugs”, or bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. When bacteria get used to being exposed to antibiotics that used to kill them, they can develop resistance to the antibiotic, meaning the drugs don’t work anymore. Antibiotic resistance makes it more challenging to prevent and treat infections.

For example, a Canadian study found evidence that using Ceftiofur in farming, an antibiotic commonly injected into eggs, was linked to antibiotic resistance in people. This antibiotic is used to treat infections in people that are already resistant to other common antibiotics. In April of 2014, Chicken Farmers of Canada banned its members from injecting eggs with the drug.

Antibiotic-resistant E. coli, Salmonella and other bacteria on contaminated meat or poultry can make people sick. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can also enter water systems, further increasing the risk that important antibiotics may become less effective for treating infections.

How do I lower my exposure?

Like growth hormones, claims about the use of antibiotics and about being “natural” or “naturally-raised” are not regulated. This means that farms are not inspected to make sure these terms reflect how the animals are raised. Only organic meat is inspected to make sure the animals are raised without antibiotics and growth hormones.

Meat and poultry that is labelled: "raised without the use of antibiotics” implies that no antibiotics were given to the animals at any time. They could still have been given vaccines and fed bacteria that help prevent disease. If a product label says the animal was “fed no antibiotics” this could still mean the animal was injected with antibiotics.

Meat or poultry that is labelled “natural” or “naturally-raised” implies that the animal was raised without any interference from humans – for example, wild salmon. This would mean no vitamins, antibiotics or hormones were given to the animal. Again, these terms are used voluntarily and are not monitored.

To lower traces of antibiotics on your produce, wash your fruit and vegetables under running tap water for 30 seconds. Organic foods contain lower amounts of antibiotics than non-organic foods.

Always follow food safety guidelines to prevent spreading bacteria that could make you sick. This is especially important if you have a compromised immune system as a result of cancer treatment.

Recipe ideas
Image of Sticky Chicken & Chickpea Cassoulet
Image of Ginger Lime Wild Salmon with Herbed Quinoa Crust
Sticky Chicken & Chickpea Cassoulet
Ginger Lime Wild Salmon with Herbed Quinoa Crust