Beef suppliers to McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Walmart source their meat from US farms that use antibiotics linked to the spread of dangerous superbugs, an investigation has found.
Unpublished US government records obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Guardian show that farms producing beef for meatpacking companies Cargill, JBS and Green Bay are risking public health by still using antibiotics classified as ” highest priority of critical importance” to human health (HP-CIA).
These drugs are so essential to human medicine that their use in animal husbandry must be stopped, the World Health Organization has warned. HP-CIAs are often the last line or one of the limited treatments available for serious bacterial infections in humans, he said. Overuse of these antibiotics means they can become less effective.
The results drew condemnation from public health experts and activists.
“The reckless overuse of medically important antibiotics on factory farms is a major contributor to this deadly threat to public health,” said Cory Booker, a US senator who has advocated for tighter controls on how antibiotics can be used in food production. “Giant agribusinesses have built a system that depends on this misuse of antibiotics to maximize their profits, regardless of the serious harm they cause.”
There is no ban on the use of antibiotics for treatment or to prevent disease, although farmers now need a veterinary prescription for many medically important antibiotics that were previously available over the counter and added to the diet. water and animal feed. There is a ban in the United States on the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, which has been in place since 2017.
But many American breeders still regularly use antibiotics for months. Using them – and overusing them – risks allowing bacteria to develop resistance, which means the drugs stop working.
Antibiotic resistance is one of the most serious global threats to public health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is responsible for more than 35,000 deaths in the United States each year and 1.3 million worldwide.
Despite the risks, residues of many HP-CIAs and other antibiotics were present in many beef supply chains in the United States between 2017 and 2022, tested by the Food The Security and Inspection Service (FSIS), part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), has shown this.
A Bureau and Guardian analysis of data for 10 of the largest meatpackers found that all had at least one HP-CIA in use at one or more farms supplying their slaughterhouses. Several were found to have as many as seven separate HP-CIAs in use.
Beef farms selling to JBS, which sold beef to Wendy’s, Walmart and Taco Bell, were found to have used seven HP-CIAs. Farms serving dressed beef from Green Bay, which supplied supermarket chain Kroger, also had seven in operation.
Livestock suppliers to Cargill, which sells beef to McDonald’s, were found to be using at least five HP-CIAs.
Besides these drugs, other types of antibiotics frequently used in human medicine have also been found.
JBS said that although it is not directly responsible for the administration of antibiotics to livestock, “we support the use of medically important antibiotics in our livestock supply under the supervision of licensed veterinarians for therapeutic purposes only. , defined as the prevention, control and treatment of disease, rather than the promotion of growth or the improvement of feed efficiency”.
Cargill said: “The judicious use of antibiotics prevents sick animals from entering the food supply and ensures that animals do not suffer unnecessary illness. While we support the responsible use of human antibiotics in food production, we are committed to not using critically important antibiotics for human medicine as defined by the World Health Organization.
Taco Bell told the Bureau that it updated its fresh beef standards in 2019 “to require its U.S. and Canadian suppliers to limit antibiotics important to human health by 25% by 2025 in beef supply chains”.
Walmart, Kroger and Wendy’s did not respond to a request for comment. McDonald’s directed the Bureau to its online statement on antibiotics.
The spread of drug-resistant bacteria in the environment represents a huge public health challenge.
“It creates a relentless cycle of escalation,” said Dr. Sameer Patel, an infectious disease specialist at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. “You have to use stronger antibiotics because you don’t want a patient to get sicker and die. And then you use these stronger antibiotics and you end up becoming resistant to these antibiotics.
USDA data reveals that residues of the antibiotic ceftiofur have been found in beef supplied to major fast food chains and grocery stores. Ceftiofur is a popular drug for cattle raised in feedlots, in part because it is effective against a wide range of bacteria and farmers do not have to wait too long to slaughter cattle after administration. .
But there are concerns that its use in agriculture could lead to resistance to antibiotics used to treat infections in humans.
Patel recalls an unusual case decades ago of a newborn with a severe infection resistant to third-generation cephalosporins, the class of antibiotics to which ceftiofur belongs. “Nowadays I see a lot of young children who have third-generation cephalosporin resistance…it’s no longer surprising,” he said.
Until 2017, antibiotics were added to animal feed to fatten livestock. After the US Food and Drug Administration announced a ban on the practice, sales of agricultural antibiotics fell by a third.
However, since this sharp drop, sales have stabilized. Farmers can still use antibiotics regularly to prevent disease, as long as they have a prescription from a veterinarian.
“For some of the drugs they use, the doses used for prevention are exactly the same as what they were using for growth promotion,” said Dr. Gail Hansen, veterinarian and public health consultant. “Bacteria don’t care what you call it. They will do what they do, which is to try to survive. And becoming resistant to antibiotics is part of their survival.
McDonald’s has repeatedly dodged calls to set targets to reduce the use of antibiotics by farmers who supply it with beef, according to Matt Wellington of the US Public Interest Group, one of the organizations that has lobbied the companies fast food restaurants to use antibiotics. In 2018, McDonald’s was praised for committing to goal setting. But four years later, little progress has been made.
“McDonald’s has apparently abandoned its commitment to setting concrete targets to reduce antibiotic use in its massive beef supply chain,” Wellington said. “It’s a blow to our ability to preserve life-saving drugs, and it sets a bad example for the rest of the industry.”
Yet the demand for cheap meat means farmers are under pressure. Will Harris, who farms the vast pastures of White Oak in southern Georgia, turned his back on factory farming and the use of antibiotics several years ago. “Now in the environment where I raise my animals, we don’t have a lot of sick animals.”
He says consumers are “hopelessly addicted to obscenely cheap food”, but they’re not the main offenders. “I think these big food companies are more part of the problem than the solution…they are causing incredible harm to society and on some level probably know it.”