Burgers, Bacon… and Antibiotics?

I love bacon so much. And burgers, and chicken nuggets. So as you can imagine, becoming a vegetarian wasn’t something that I’d previously considered. But I’ve now been veggie for 3 weeks and counting, because it felt like something I should do.

Globally, the livestock industry churns out more greenhouse gases than transport1, and as the world population grows exponentially, meat-packed diets won’t be sustainable. However, something that’s not always considered is the antimicrobial resistance (AMR) crisis. It’s not the sexiest topic, but for me this is one of the biggest drivers to eat less meat. So, what’s the current situation, and why could going veggie help the looming catastrophe for antibiotics?

AMR bears some scary statistics. It is estimated that 700,000 people die of drug-resistant infections each year, which could rise to 10 million by 2050. 2 To avoid the emergence of resistant strains of bacteria, some antibiotics are now reserved as ‘last resort’ drugs- only prescribed for the most serious infections. AMR is emerging due to many reasons, such as the overprescription of antibiotics for people who don’t really need them, but the UN recognised the use of antimicrobials in livestock as a leading cause of AMR.3 It’s a complex process, but if bacteria in animals develop resistance to a drug, they could spread to human populations (for example, via farm workers), which could cause problems for us too.

The AMR Review highlighted the need to reduce the unnecessary use of antimicrobials in agriculture as a key target.2 In the US, 80% of antibiotics sold go to livestock.4 Globally, we’re talking around 130,000 tons of drugs.3 Most antibiotic use is prophylactic or to treat infection, but in some countries it is used to promote growth. This practice has been banned in the EU since 20055, and rightly so, since it is not at all necessary. Even more worryingly, last-resort drugs that are used to treat bacteria classified as the ‘biggest threats’6, such as P.aeruginosa (a cause of pneumonia), are being used on livestock. Last year, in China, transferable resistance to a drug called colistin (used to fight E.coli and K.pneumoniae) was uncovered in pigs7. The discovery shook the medical field.

Some articles 8,9 have claimed that, even if you’re a vegan who eats strictly organic food, you’re still contributing to AMR because antibiotics are also used on fruit and veg. After a little digging into the world of plant sciences, it seems that apples, pears, and peaches are the worst offenders.10 Streptomycin and oxytetracycline are applied to orchards fairly regularly to protect them against a disease called fire blight. But this only equates to 0.12% of the quantity of antibiotics used on animals in the US.10 Antibiotics may also end up on fruit and veg via manure, but in tiny quantities. So plant agriculture is something we’re less concerned about. Besides, we’ve got to eat something, right?

It looks like the industry is moving in the right direction. McDonald’s is always there for me after a night out for a drunken McFlurry, but it’s with me on this one too, as they’ve pledged to only use chickens that haven’t been treated with human antibiotics.11 But a recent review claims that eating less meat in the first place is key. If we all reduced our intake to 40 g/day3, this could reduce antimicrobial consumption by 66%.3 So there’s still a long, long way to go, but changing our individual habits will help, and even if I don’t continue being completely veggie, I will be cutting my meat intake.


1. EPA. 2016. Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data.

2. O’Neill, J. et al (2016). Tackling Drug-Resistant Infections Globally: final report and recommendations. Review on Antimicrobial Resistance.

3. Van Boeckel, T. et al, (2017). Reducing antimicrobial use in food animals. Science.

4. Food Safety News. 2011. Most U.S. Antibiotics Go to Animal Agriculture. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/02/fda-confirms-80-percent-of-antibiotics-used-in-animal-ag/#.WjLJpFVl_IV. [Accessed 14 December 2017].

5. European Commission. 2005. Ban on antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed enters into effect. [ONLINE] Available at: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-05-1687_en.htm. [Accessed 14 December 2017].

6. CDC. 2017. Antibiotic/ Antimicrobial Resistance Biggest Threats. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/biggest_threats.html. [Accessed 14 December 2017].

7. Liu, Y et al. (2016). Emergence of plasmid-mediated colistin resistance mechanism MCR-1 in animals and human beings in China: a microbiological and molecular biological study. Lancet Infect Dis.

8. Motherboard. 2016. Vegans, You’re Contributing to Antibiotic Resistance, Too. [ONLINE] Available at: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/3da5wb/vegans-youre-contributing-to-antibiotic-resistance-too. [Accessed 14 December 2017].

9. Scientific American. 2011. Worried about Antibiotics in Your Beef? Vegetables May Be No Better. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/vegetables-contain-antibiotics/. [Accessed 14 December 2017].

10. Stockwell, V.O. Duffy, B. (2012). Use of antibiotics in plant agriculture. Rev Sci Tech.

11. McDonald’s Newsroom. 2017. Statement on Antibiotic Use – Updated 8/23/17. [ONLINE] Available at: http://news.mcdonalds.com/us/media-statements/response-to-antibiotics-in-chicken. [Accessed 14 December 2017].