US government records obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Guardian show farms producing beef for meat packing firms Cargill, JBS, and Green Bay who in turn supply McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy's and Walmart are risking public health by still using antibiotics classed as the “highest priority critically important” to human health (HP-CIAs). The findings have prompted condemnation from public health experts and campaigners.
Such drugs are so essential to human medicine that their use in livestock farming should be stopped, the World Health Organization has warned. HP-CIAs are often the last line or one of limited treatments available for serious bacterial infections in humans. The overuse of such antibiotics means they can become less effective. There is no ban on using 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 water and feed. There is a ban in the US on using antibiotics for growth promotion, which has been in place since 2017.
Cory Booker, a US senator has advocated for stricter controls on how antibiotics can be used in food production, explained:
“Giant agribusinesses have built a system that is dependent on this misuse of antibiotics to maximise their profits, with no regard to the serious harm they are causing.”
US cattle farmers still routinely use antibiotics often for months on end. Their use – and overuse – risks enabling bacteria to develop resistance, meaning the drugs stop working.
Antibiotic resistance is one of the gravest global public health threats. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is responsible for more than 35,000 deaths in the US each year, and 1.3 million globally.