Are there antibiotics in our meat?

This is the third in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 3: There are no antibiotics in your meat.

As earlier claims, this can be read in at least two different ways – and in this case, one turns out to be probably true while the other is probably false.

The first is the suggestion that antibiotics administered to animals while they live remain in the product you buy at the supermarket or at the butcher. I learned from someone in the business (my dad, who used to raise cattle) that any antibiotics (and growth hormones) are metabolized by the time the animal is butchered. Indeed, it would seem to be a necessary fact if our food safety inspection system is at all justified in its existence.

But I don’t expect you to take “it stands to reason” or personal “I know someone in the industry who said” as evidence. Let’s look at what’s out there …

After sifting through various industry-advocacy sources, I came across this site from EatRight Ontario – a group of Dieticians funded in part by the province and apparently independent of industry. Here is their takeaway on antibiotics (and hormones) in meat products:

Health Canada sets maximum levels of hormones and antibiotics that can be left in food. These limits are set at levels far below the amount that could pose a health concern.

Test results from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency show that hormone and antibiotic levels are rarely found to be above the recommended levels.

A more detailed explanation of how this could be is given by Brian Dunning in the Skeptoid episode on antibiotics and hormones in beef. Note that Skeptoid is American-based, and so regulatory issues may differ from Canada. However, the biochemistry is the same. Here is what Dunning says:

Antibiotics are metabolized very rapidly by humans and animals. That’s why your doctor gives you a bottle and you have to take several pills a day; the pharmacokinetics are such that there’s not enough left in your system after only a few hours or days at the most. When cattle are treated with antibiotics, these pharmacokinetics are the same. But we don’t take any risks here. Cattle given antibiotics are subject to what’s called a withdrawal time, a waiting period where that cow cannot go into food production until we’re sure there are no antibiotics left in its system. Depending on what drug is given, this withdrawal time is anywhere from 0 to 60 days. By the time any cow goes into food production, there’s no antibiotic in its system.

Okay, so much for the presence of antibiotics in the actual meat we consume. What about the wider issue? Many of the results my search turned up didn’t even bother with whether antibiotics remain in the meat. The more pressing issue is the effect of widespread, non-clinical use of antibiotics in our agricultural animals.

Here is an article on PBS about the scope of the issue in the US. CBC seems to agree that it is just as big a problem in Canada. The main issue: overuse of antibiotics in animals may contribute to antibiotic resistance in not only food-borne illnesses, but also other pathogens that humans suffer from. On the scientific front, we have a 2015 article on Healthy Debate (a Canadian health information group dedicated to presenting unbiased, science-based information to the public) arguing for greater restrictions on the use of antibiotics in food animals.

Health Canada takes a more tentative position, claiming that more evidence is needed before making a policy decision. The industry-advocacy organization, the Beef Cattle Research Council, claims that “Research and surveillance evidence suggests that eliminating antimicrobial use in beef production would have clear negative health consequences for cattle with no obvious benefit for human health.”

It sounds like much of the reporting from unbiased sources (those with no financial interest either way) takes a cautionary approach – from warning against current levels of antibiotic use (PBS, CBC, Healthy Debate) to wanting more evidence (Health Canada). The only “no problem here, move along” message seems to come from an industry source, which a reader can reasonably suspect in light of the other evidence, because the industry is likely to have a financial interest in encouraging consumers not to worry about their practices.

My overall conclusions on this claim are therefore mixed. Meat on the table almost certainly contains no antibiotics. However, antibiotic use in the raising of animals probably has other negative consequences, and there are moves from grassroots, industry, and regulators to curb the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. Personally, I am currently inclined to make purchasing choices that avoid animal products produced using sub-clinical doses of antibiotics. Because of the problems I have with the “organic” label (discussed in other posts in this series), I tend to avoid products labelled organic. Is there some way to pick meat that is neither “organic” nor produced with excess antibiotics?

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