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Emily Martin’s Blog

Antipasti, without the Antibiotics

Emily Martin

Posted September 6, 2013 in Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably

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I like to think of myself as an environmentally responsible omnivore.  Yes, I eat meat and fish every so often, but I do try to make purchases where my fish is wild-caught and mymeat1.JPG meat is antibiotic free, or even better, raised without nontherapeutic antibiotics.  I’m OK with the idea that the animals I eventually eat are given antibiotics when they are sick, but would prefer that they are not routinely fed antibiotics as is the case for conventional meat products on the shelf these days.

This philosophy becomes hard to put into practice as I recently discovered on a trip to Fairway in my Brooklyn, New York neighborhood.  Most of the meat sold was mysteriously packed without any indication one way or another as to how the animals were raised, with only a small section dedicated to organic poultry products. 

I must confess that I love pork, specifically, I love prosciutto.  Which is why I was thrilled to read an article recently about prosciutto made in Iowa using pigs only fed antibiotics when sick.  What joy!  Now I can wrap my organic cantaloupe in the sweet, salty, meaty treat without worrying about contributing to the evolution of antibiotic resistant superbugs!!

In celebration, I called my sister, mother of 3 (and one on the way) who also lives in Brooklyn.  Somehow she manages to live in New York City with her husband and kids on one income and in a small, 2-bedroom apartment.  Anyone who lives in the city knows that’s quite a feat! When I eagerly shared my prosciutto newsflash she simply laughed.  Or more accurately, she didn’t hear me over the sound of three children demanding to be fed variations of mac n cheese and chicken nuggets, and so she asked me to repeat and then laughed at me in a slightly, different judgmental way.    

The truth is this Iowa-grown specialty product will have absolutely no impact on her or her buying habits.  While I enjoy my organic, antibiotic free, free range, anti-GMO, occasionally vegan and gluten-free diet, she is counting every penny trying to turn each week’s budget into healthy, well balanced meals for her growing brood of children. 

Now, I love my sister, so I care about what she eats and what my niece and nephews eat.  But if she weren’t my sister, I probably wouldn’t be as concerned about her buying habits, except for one BIG problem.

Because she buys conventional meat products, then millions of people just like her, on tight budgets and with legitimate concerns for how to get food on the table, are buying them too.  It’s no surprise then, that there is massive pressure on industry to keep producing beef, pork and chicken products using conventional methods – feeding antibiotics to livestock routinely in their feed, regardless of whether or not they are sick.  As a result, these animals produce antibiotic resistant superbugs in their guts which get out into the environment through multiple pathways – through the meat itself, the workers, the water, the air, etc. 

So the next time my prosciutto-fed son trips and gets a cut, he might get infected with one of these superbugs that are increasingly all around us.  Which means he might end up in the hospital.  So why aren’t we saving these miracle drugs for our families?

There is some hope in all of this.  Companies like Applegate, Panera Bread and Chipotle are offering antibiotic free meat at reasonable prices and leading the way in the antibiotic-free meat movement.  But I think we do need to put more pressure on more companies to make products like these available at prices more of us can afford.  Large meat and poultry buyers need to hear from us that there’s a demand and that we expect them to step up to the challenge.

So, while I’d love to stock up on my sometimes over-priced specialty products, batten down the hatches and wait for the superbug apocalypse to pass, instead I’m all too aware that these types of products will need to be available for everyone if real change is to occur. If we want meat and poultry raised without antibiotics in our grocery aisles, we need to stand up and say so. Together, our collective consumer purchasing power can send a powerful message to major buyers.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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