An investigation has found that beef suppliers to McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Walmart are buying meat from US farms that use antibiotics linked to the spread of dangerous germs.
Unpublished US government records obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Guardian show that farms that produce beef for meatpacking companies Cargill, JBS and Green Bay are risking public health by continuing to use antibiotics classified as “high priority” for human health (HP- CIAs).
The World Health Organization has warned that such drugs are so essential to human medicine that their use in livestock must be discontinued. HP-CIAs are often the last line or one of the limited treatments available for serious bacterial infections in humans, she 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 called for tighter controls on how antibiotics are used in food production. “Giant agricultural corporations have created a system that relies on the misuse of antibiotics to maximize their profits, without regard for the massive damage they cause.”
There is no prohibition on the use of antibiotics to treat or prevent disease, although farmers now require a veterinary prescription for many medically important antibiotics that were previously available over the counter and added to water and feed. There is a ban in the United States on the use of antibiotics to promote growth, which has been in place since 2017.
But many US ranchers still routinely use antibiotics for months on end. Using them — and using them too much — can enable bacteria to develop resistance, which means the drugs stop working.
Antibiotic resistance is one of the most serious threats to public health worldwide. 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 deaths globally.
Despite the risks, residues of several HP-CIAs and other antibiotics were present in several US beef supply chains between 2017 and 2022, and were tested by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), part of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). USDA). , show up.
The Bureau and the Guardian analysis of data on 10 of the largest meatpackers revealed that all had at least one HP-CIA used on one or more farms supplying their slaughterhouses. Several of as many as seven separate HP-CIAs have been found to be in use.
Cattle farms sold to JBS, which sold beef to Wendy’s, Walmart and Taco Bell, were found to use seven HP-CIAs. Farms serving Green Bay Dressed Beef, which supplied the Kroger supermarket chain, also used seven farms.
Cattle suppliers to Cargill, which sells beef to McDonald’s, were found to have at least five HP-CIAs in use.
Besides these drugs, other types of antibiotics are also found to be frequently used in human medicine.
JBS said that although it was not directly responsible for administering antibiotics to livestock, “we support the use of medically important antibiotics in our livestock supply under the supervision of licensed veterinarians for therapeutic use only, defined as disease prevention, control and treatment, rather than It can either promote growth or improve feed efficiency.”
“The judicious use of antibiotics prevents sick animals from entering the food supply, and ensures that animals do not unnecessarily become ill with diseases,” said Cargill. “While we support the responsible use of human antibiotics in food production, we are committed not to use antibiotics that are critical to human medicines as specified.” by the World Health Organization.
Taco Bell told the bureau that it updated its standards for fresh beef in 2019 to “require its suppliers in the United States and Canada to limit antibiotics important to human health in their beef supply chains by 25% by 2025.”
Walmart, Kroger and Wendy’s did not respond to a request for comment. McDonald’s directed the office to its online statement on antibiotics.
The spread of drug-resistant bacteria in the environment is a major 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 more powerful antibiotics because you don’t want the patient to get sick and die. And then you use those more powerful antibiotics and then eventually you get resistance to those antibiotics.”
USDA data reveals that residues of the antibiotic Ceftiophor have been found in beef supplied to major fast food chains and grocery stores. Ceftiofur is a popular drug for use in cattle kept in feedlots, in part because it is effective against a wide range of bacteria and farmers do not have to wait long to slaughter cattle after administering it.
But there are concerns that its use in agriculture could lead to increased resistance to antibiotics used to treat infections in humans.
Patel recalls an unusual case decades ago of a newborn with a severe infection that was resistant to third-generation cephalosporins, the class of antibiotics to which Ceftiophor belongs. “Nowadays, I’m seeing many young children who have resistance to third generation cephalosporins… It’s not surprising anymore,” he said.
Until 2017, antibiotics were added to animal feed to fatten cattle. After the US Food and Drug Administration announced a ban on the practice, the sale of antibiotics for use in agriculture fell by a third.
However, since this sharp decline, sales have leveled off. Farmers can still routinely use antibiotics to prevent disease, as long as they have a prescription from a veterinarian.
“For some of the medications they use, the doses used for prevention are exactly the same as what they were using to promote growth,” said Dr. Jill Hansen, veterinarian and public health consultant. “Bacteria don’t care what you call it. They’ll do what they do, which is try to survive. And becoming resistant to antibiotics is part of how they survive.”
McDonald’s has repeatedly dodged calls for it to set targets to reduce antibiotic use by the farmers who supply it with beef, according to Matt Wellington of the American Public Interest Group, one of the organizations that has pressured fast food companies on antibiotic use. In 2018, McDonald’s was praised for its commitment to goal setting. But four years later, little progress has been made.
“McDonald’s appears to have abandoned its commitment to setting concrete targets to reduce antibiotic use in its massive beef supply chain,” Wellington said. “It’s a huge blow to our ability to preserve life-saving medicines, and it sets a bad example for the rest of the industry.”
However, the demand for cheap meat means farmers are under pressure. Will Harris, who farms the vast white oak pastures of southern Georgia, turned his back on industrial farming and antibiotic use several years ago. “Now, in the environment where I raise my animals, we don’t have sick animals that much.”
He says consumers are “hopelessly addicted to outrageously cheap food” but they are not the main culprits. “I think these big food companies are more part of the problem than the solution… They’re doing incredible harm to society, and you probably know that on some level.”