BLT sandwiches may need to add an A to the acronym -- for antibiotics.
Soaring demand for meat across the world has caused a major uptick in the amount of antimicrobial drugs in pork, beef and poultry, according to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
But as bacon sales sizzle and China -- where pork is the favored meat -- becomes wealthier, pig farmers around the world are meeting demand by using about four times as much antibiotics per pound of meat as cattle ranchers. Poultry is a close second.
The antibiotics serve two purposes. First, they help fatten up livestock at a faster rate. Second, they keep animals healthy despite being raised in overcrowded, filthy conditions where disease spreads easily.
In 2010, farmers around the world used more than 63,000 tons of antibiotics to raise livestock. By 2030, the researchers expect that number to rise to more than 105,000 tons.
“People are getting richer and want to eat more meat,” Thomas Van Boeckel, an epidemiologist at Princeton University and an author of the study, told The Huffington Post by phone. “Antibiotics help to provide a lot of meat for people who can afford it.”
Consumption of antibiotic-fed meat poses a major threat to humanity. Exposure to human antibiotics through meat has given rise to antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” which some researchers suggest could kill up to 10 million people worldwide by 2050 if left unchecked.
As awareness of this threat grows, some companies have removed antibiotics from their meat supply. Earlier this month, McDonald’s vowed to remove human antibiotics from its chicken supply, though animal antibiotics would continue to be used and the human drugs would remain in beef and pork products. Chicken chain Chick-fil-A removed all antibiotics from its chicken last year.
But Chipotle remains the food industry’s poster child for antibiotic-free meat. The burrito chain showed its commitment earlier this year when it suffered a pork shortage after discovering issues with its supplier.
Still, the industry seems unlikely to change unless more consumers demand antibiotic-free meat. Legislation has done little to stymie the growth of the use of antibiotics in the United States. In China, no such legislation exists.
“If things change at all, it’ll be because customers demand better products, like organic bacon,” Van Boeckel said. “But, of course, not everyone can afford that.”