#22 – Public Health Threatened by Beef Suppliers’ Continued Use of “Critically Important” Antibiotics

by Shealeigh

Beef suppliers for major fast food and supermarket chains are sourcing meat from US farms that use antibiotics linked to the spread of “superbugs,” bacteria strains that are resistant to antibiotics, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Guardian reported in November 2022. The joint investigation examined US Department of Agriculture data from 2017-2022 for ten of the biggest meat packers—including Cargill, JBS, and Green Bay Dressed Beef—and found that all ten sourced beef from farms that use at least one antibiotic designated “highest priority” and “critically important.” Cattle farms selling to JBS, which has supplied beef to Wendy’s, Walmart, and Taco Bell, and to Green Bay Dressed Beef, a supplier for the Kroger supermarket chain, have used as many as seven highest priority critically important antibiotics (or HP-CIAs). Drugs designated as HP-CIAs are often the “last line” of treatment available for serious bacterial infections in humans.

The spread of drug-resistant bacteria “represents a huge public health challenge,” the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reported. The World Health Organization has warned that antibiotics essential to human medicine should not be used in livestock because bacteria can develop resistance that reduces the drugs’ effectiveness for humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic resistance causes more than thirty-five thousand deaths in the United States each year and 1.3 million deaths globally. [Note: For Project Censored’s previous coverage of this neglected news topic, see Yadira Martinez et al., “Antibiotic Resistant ‘Superbugs’ Threaten Health and Foundations of Modern Medicine,” and Allison Rott and Steve Macek, “Antibiotic Abuse: Pharmaceutical Profiteering Accelerates Superbugs.”]

Since 2017, the United States has banned the use of antibiotics to promote livestock growth, but cattle farmers can still obtain veterinary prescriptions for antibiotics to prevent or treat disease.

McDonald’s has “repeatedly dodged calls for it to set targets to reduce the use of antibiotics by farmers supplying it with beef,” the Guardian and TBIJ reported. Matt Wellington of the US Public Interest Research Group described McDonald’s failure to commit to reductions as “a major blow,” noting that it “sets a bad example for the rest of the industry.”

As of May 2023, no major corporate news outlets have covered the findings of the joint TBIJ-Guardian investigation. Shortly after that study’s publication, the New York Times website posted a transcript of an episode of The Ezra Klein Show that featured Leah Garcés, president of the international nonprofit Mercy for Animals, discussing “The Hidden Costs of Cheap Meat,” including the threats to human health posed by antibiotic resistance. Subsequent coverage of the Bureau and the Guardian’s study has been limited to other independent news sources, including the health website Eat This, Not That!; Deseret News; Corporate Wellness Magazine; and Scientific American.

Ben Stockton and Andrew Wasley, “McDonald’s and Walmart Beef Suppliers Risk Public Health With ‘Reckless’ Antibiotic Use,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and, “McDonald’s and Walmart Beef Suppliers Criticized for ‘Reckless’ Antibiotics Use,” The Guardian, November 21, 2022.

Student Researcher: Hailey Hearney (Drew University)

Faculty Researcher: Lisa Lynch (Drew University)