Child Development
Feeding Antibiotics to Healthy Animals Risks Children’s Health

Feeding Antibiotics to Healthy Animals Risks Children’s Health

January 23, 2023

The influential American Academy of Pediatrics, which numbers 64,000 pediatricians, has added its voice to the growing movement of public health professionals who are demanding an end to the dangerous overuse of antibiotics in meat and poultry production.

A new technical report by Dr. Jerome A. Paulson and Dr. Theoklis E. Zaoutis of the AAP Council on Environmental Health and Committee on Infectious Diseases described how the widespread agricultural practice of dosing healthy, if overcrowded, livestock and poultry with antibiotics to induce weight gain and prevent disease has contributed to the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant microbes.

“Infants and children are affected by transmission of [antibiotic-resistant, disease-causing pathogens] through the food supply, direct contact with animals, and environmental pathways,” they wrote. “…For most [food-borne] infections, incidence was highest among children younger than 5 years.” And when antibiotics fail, these children are in a fight for their lives.

Paulson and Zaoutis took aim at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whose guidelines urge meat producers to take voluntary measures to curb the use of antibiotics on well animals. “Because the lines between disease prevention and growth promotion are not always clear,” they wrote, “the current FDA policy may allow drug manufacturers to continue using ambiguous language on labels of antibiotic drugs.”

“The message is to change the practice of agribusiness, either through government changes or marketplace changes, so everybody is safer,” Paulson told CBS News. “I think if people vote with their pocketbooks, then industry will be required to change. Hopefully the USDA and the FDA will require them to change. I think this is something that with a large enough movement in society, the industry will be forced to change.”

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause about 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses in the U.S. each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And about one in five antibiotic-resistant infections are caused by germs from food and animals.

The public community’s demands for action intensified recently, when, according to the Reuters news agency, Chinese scientists reported that they had discovered a new “superbug” gene in people and pigs that could render useless “last resort” antibiotics called polymyxins. Medical professionals consider polymyxins, widely used in agriculture, the last line of defense against certain antibiotic-resistant pathogens that cause serious illness in humans.

What can families do reduce their risk?

Take antibiotics only when necessary and use them precisely as instructed by your doctor. Click here to learn more tips from the CDC about antibiotics use.

Children, who are especially vulnerable to pathogens, can be exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria by eating contaminated meat or through contact with the animals. Treat all meat as if it is contaminated: cook it thoroughly and avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen.

When shopping for meat, look for labels that confirm no antibiotics have been used on healthy animals. These include:

  • USDA Certified Organic
  • Certified Humane
  • Animal Welfare Approved
  • American Grassfed Association
  • Food Alliance Certified - Grassfed
  • Global Animal Partnership

When dining out, ask restaurants where they buy their meat and their suppliers’ antibiotics policies. Some fast food chains such as Panera have already begun serving meat exclusively from animals that have not been treated with antibiotics.

You can click here to find out what other companies are doing.

To learn more about how your family may be exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and how to reduce your exposure, visit EWG’s Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change + Health.