Better Burger Gluttony

Published on January 17th, 2013 | by Tanya Sitton

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Are Agricultural Antibiotics Making You Outgrow Your Pants?

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Burger Gluttony

Agricultural overuse of antibiotics poses serious risks to public health, in terms of facilitating emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and ‘superbugs.’ But wait, there’s more! Agricultural antibiotics in the food supply may also fatten up human beings, right along with the farmed animals they eat.

Antibiotic Excess: It’s What’s for Dinner!

Despite growing concerns surrounding the practice’s ugly tendency to cultivate antibiotic-resistant bacteria, facilitating the emergence of treatment-resistant disease, industrial animal producers love how it enables them to keep animals in filthy overcrowded conditions.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists,

…approximately 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy farm animals at low doses to promote faster growth and compensate for unsanitary living conditions– a practice that has increased over the past 60 years despite evidence that it breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria dangerous to humans.

In a landmark 2012 decision, Federal Judge Theodore Katz chastised the FDA for their failure to limit potential human health risks from widespread agricultural antibiotic use, saying the FDA has done ‘shockingly little to address these risks.’

Now there’s another reason to question (and condemn) the FDA’s lackadaisical nonregulation of the agricultural antibiotic problem. New research suggests that antibiotics in our food supply may not only be cultivating dangerous superbugs; agricultural antibiotic abuse may also play a role in the ongoing obesity crisis, by altering gut bacteria affecting metabolism.

You Are What They Eat

When farmed animals consume regular low doses of antibiotics, it affects the bacteria within the animals’ digestive tracts. These microorganisms regulate many aspects of health. When humans eat animal products derived from antibiotic-fed animals, they’re consuming the antibiotics the animals ate — and there’s good reason to suspect they experience the same effects.

Mother Jones reported earlier this month on the connection between gut bacteria, antibiotics, and weight gain:

This year, scientists may have finally figured out why small doses of antibiotics “promote growth,” as the industry puts it: They make subtle changes to what’s known as the “gut microbiome,” the teeming universe populated by billions of microbes that live within the digestive tracts of animals. In recent research, the microbiome has been emerging as a key regulator of health, from immune-related disorders like allergies and asthma to the ability to fight off pathogens.

Researchers published a groundbreaking study in Nature last August, examining the mechanism by which antibiotics promote weight gain.  They fed mice regular low doses of antibiotics, at levels equivalent to those considered ‘standard practice’ within industrial animal farming. After 7 weeks, the mice on antibiotics were found to have substantially different intestinal microorganism populations — gut microbiomes — relative to the control group. They had also gained 10-15% more fat mass, relative to their non-antibiotic-eating counterparts.

Researchers demonstrated that changes in gut microbiomes, among antibiotic-fed mice, increased metabolic hormone levels. These changes made carbs more easily absorbed and converted to fat, resulting in rapid weight gain.

What Does That Mean for Human Health, Exactly?

We need more research on the connection between dietary antibiotics and obesity in humans, but existing research offers cause for concern.

In a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Obesity, researchers found significant relationships between antibiotic exposure and pediatric weight gain:

Exposure to antibiotics during the first 6 months of life is associated with consistent increases in body mass from 10 to 38 months. Exposures later in infancy (6–14 months, 15–23 months) are not consistently associated with increased body mass. Although effects of early exposures are modest at the individual level, they could have substantial consequences for population health.

A recent European study showed that even miniscule antibiotic exposure can trigger profound effects on microorganisms.  Does that mean that even tiny amounts of antibiotics in meat (or milk or eggs) could be altering human microbiomes, promoting excessive weight gain?

Keeve Nachman, researcher of agricultural antibiotic use for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, told Tom Philpott at Mother Jones that right now we really just don’t know:

Nachman stressed that we simply don’t have sufficient information to tell whether the meat we eat is messing with our gut microbiome. But, he adds, “It’s not an unreasonable suspicion.”

The FDA sets limits on antibiotics residue in meat, but only considers research funded and conducted by industry. The alleged regulatory agency refuses to release this research data to the public, or to consider independent research not financed by agricultural interests.

According to Food Poisoning Bulletin,

Last month the Government Accountability Project sued the FDA over information they have about how antibiotics are used in food animals. Many consumer and public interest groups want to know more about the drugs that are being used in our food supply because antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming more prevalent. The obesity epidemic in America may be another reason to be concerned about this issue.

But Don’t Worry — There’s Good News, Too!

In the postmodern age of antibiotic-resistant pandemic disease, and widespread early debility and death related to intractible obesity, Tyson and Smithfield and BPI shareholders will still make tons of money!

By pumping antibiotics into animals so they can raise them in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, they can really rake in those profits — which I’m sure we can all agree is WAY more important than the health of silly people who want to not die from MRSA infection after simple surgeries, or maybe not have obesity-linked health problems such as multiple diabetic amputations before age 50.

As long as we remember what’s really important, and the FDA stays the course in completely ignoring any and all opportunities to regulate agricultural antibiotic usage even the tiniest little bit, the future (for industrial animal-ag producers) is looking bright!

Unless, of course, their corporate shareholders also eat food, get infections, and dislike heart attacks.

Image credit: Creative Commons photo by ImNotQuiteJack.



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About the Author

is an ecovore, veganist, messy chef, green girl, food revolutionary, and general free-thinkin' rabble-rouser. M.S. in a health profession, with strong interests in biology, nutrition, and healthy living - find her on .



  • John L. Farthing

    What is most alarming is the fact that the majority of Americans apparently isn’t alarmed by our government’s complicity with those who would gladly risk public health for private gain. What is most shocking is that most of us are no longer shocked by the damning facts that Ms. Sitton has documented here. That the FDA considers only corporate-funded research, for instance, is a scandal, but apparently we are not scandalized—and that is the greatest scandal of all. If there is any hope for a change in the pathological direction of food policy in the USA, it lies in the dissemination of the facts that articles such as this one make available to the larger public. So spread the word… Pass it on…

  • Dee

    but, corporate profit = public good, right? i mean, it makes gdp go up, so surely it’s good for america! our (haha) “regulatory” agencies are just getting out of the way and letting the almighty Market work its magic, surely no harm could come! (facepalm) thanks for another great article, tanya. the more people who read it the better, so i will work on getting the word out too..

    • http://www.faunahope.org Tanya Sitton

      I know, right? As long as Tyson/ Smithfield/ BPI/ etc. are happy, what could POSSIBLY go wrong?!

      Pretty much any time I read news tagged ‘FDA’, it ends with ‘facepalm.” :-P

      Awareness of the problem always precedes action: share away!

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