Have you ever wondered why, recently, major restaurants have begun mentioning how all of their meat is antibiotic-free? Without a context of the wider scope of human health issues, it might appear like another health fad--yet it is much more important than that. It is an important step towards slowing one of the most important threats to public health in our modern era. That threat is antimicrobial resistance. Like any other problem of this proportion, we must first understand the root causes and impending consequences in order to reach any sort of solution
Antibiotics were first discovered in 1928, with Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin. The drug worked miraculously, providing protection against the common staphylococcus infection that had terrorized hospitals and battlefields for ages before. By the time it was available to the general public, penicillin was hailed as a miracle drug, and it wasn’t long before other antibiotics were in development. In 1945, Alexander Fleming won the Nobel Prize for medicine and by 1972 five more antibiotics had been discovered. It seemed as if the world had escaped from the horrors of bacterial infections. Yet even in his acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize, Fleming was already warning us of the dangers of drug resistant bacteria.
You see, the moment we introduced antibiotics, evolution began the process of strengthening bacteria against them. Since bacteria reproduce by the millions, it was inevitable that some strains developed drug resistance; misuse and abuse of antibiotics has only exacerbated the problem. Resistance works in a process like this: first you get an infection, let’s say strep throat as an example; it’s no real threat, you simply go to the doctor and get antibiotics. The medicine begins working quickly, and the infection seems to fade away, so you don’t finish the bottle your doctor gave you. A few days later, the infection returns. Now we have a problem. What has happened is the initial antibiotic, penicillin most likely, killed a majority of the bacteria, but it left a particular few that were, by random genetic chance, resistant to the antibiotic. Normally, finishing the regiment of antibiotics will weaken those few resistant strains and allow the immune system to finish the job. But when the regiment is incomplete, those resistant strains are allowed to reproduce, and now nearly every one of them is resistant to the penicillin you were given as a first line of defense, rendering it useless. Repeat this process with millions of people every year for the last fifty years, and it creates a plethora of drug resistant bacteria.
Over the last fifty years, this process has led to several strains of drug resistant bacteria, leading to difficulty fighting illnesses that had previously been cured. Of these, two of the most prominent are Clostridium difficile, which causes 14,000 deaths yearly, and Neisseria gonorrhoeae, a form of the sexually transmitted disease known as gonorrhea that is resistant to nearly all antibiotics. These and many other diseases are on the rise around the world and are most prevalent in the last place you would want them to be: hospitals. Hospitals provide the perfect breeding ground for antibiotic resistant bacteria, with hundreds of sick people gathered in one place and antibiotics aplenty.
Very recently, one of the last resort antibiotics has fallen; scientists discovered strains of bacteria that could resist Colistin. Colistin had previously been shelved due to its toxicity, as it could cause severe damage to the liver. This allowed it to be heavily monitored in human use and could be used as a last resort, should other antibiotic regimens fail. Unfortunately, Chinese pig farms have been giving this drug to their livestock, allowing the bacteria inside them to develop resistance to Colistin, and when eaten, these bacteria could be passed to humans, removing the effectiveness of the last line of defense.
And so we return to the idea of antibiotic-free meat. For years, corporations have used antibiotics in their farms in order to decrease the cost of producing their product. The livestock are often kept in squalid conditions and fed antibiotics that keep them alive in ideal breeding ground conditions for bacteria. The resistance cultivated in these farms all over the world would then be passed along to strains that could infect humans when the host animals are consumed. So when a company says their meat is antibiotic free, pay attention, because this company is doing its part to attempt to rectify the mistakes of the past misuse of antibiotics.