Are hamburgers creating superbugs?

Antimicrobial resistance. It’s been in the news and on the minds of health conscious Canadians. Everyone agrees it’s a problem, but what exactly is it and how do we stop it? The idea that antimicrobial resistance is derived from meat and dairy is an ongoing debate that has pit scientists, healthcare workers, and farmers against each other.

Antimicrobials, similar to antibiotics, are used in the treatments of living things as preventative medicine, medical treatment, and in rare cases, as a growth stimulant. When we get sick, doctors give us antibiotics to make us better. The danger with overuse and overexposure is resistance, where bugs adapt resistances to certain antimicrobials. This can make illnesses worse when the resistant strains spread.

If I have the choice of sourcing [my food] differently or paying a little more, ultimately I’m thinking my family’s health is worth it.

Antimicrobial resistance a serious problem

According to a report by Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. David Butler-Jones, antimicrobial resistance is an inescapable but delayable health problem for Canada and the rest of the world. In fact, the World Health Organization has identified antimicrobial resistance as one of the most serious threats to the treatment of infectious diseases worldwide.

Hamburger meat

Cattle must go through rigorous testing before they become ground beef, to avoid antimicrobial contamination. [© Caroline Rodriguez]

Barb Glennie, a conscious consumer and small-scale farmer, says that she began raising her own food because she was not sure how healthy other alternatives were. Concerned about what was being given to animals raised for slaughter in factory farming, she took raising pigs, chickens and cattle into her own hands. “If I have the choice of sourcing [my food] differently or paying a little more, ultimately I’m thinking my family’s health is worth it.”

When she can’t raise the animal herself, Glennie believes in only buying meat that was raised without the use of antimicrobials. To her, eating meat that has been “preemptively doped” is just too risky.

Glennie represents a shift in the overall consumer base in North America. Now that consumers are more aware, larger restaurant chains are beginning to pick up on these new concerns. Food giants like McDonald’s have begun the process of phasing out meats raised with antimicrobials in favour of naturally raised animals. Along with increasing ‘healthy’ menu items like salads and fruits, removing meats raised with the use of antimicrobials is supposed to make consumers healthier.

That antibiotic resistance in humans comes from animals would be the biggest misconception.

Herman Barkema, a professor epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Calgary’s veterinary school, begs to differ. He says that there are no health benefits to eating an animal that has been ‘naturally raised.’

“That antibiotic resistance in humans comes from animals would be the biggest misconception,” he says. With cattle, Barkema says preventative use of antibiotics is rare and that use as a promoter of growth doesn’t happen. While some countries have more relaxed regulations, Barkema says Canadian cattle raised for beef or milk production are only treated with antibiotics when necessary. “In the dairy sector, we keep records of every individual record of antibiotic treatment of every cow,” says Barkema. When it comes to beef cattle, each animal has to be “free of residue of antibiotics” before they go to the slaughterhouse, where they are retested for confirmation.

“Human antibiotic resistance is a problem and they’re blaming that on the use in animals,” says Barkema. From his perspective, this accusation is unfounded. People often demand antibiotics when they are sick with viruses, such as the flu, that do not even respond to antibiotics. While human’s misuse of antibiotics continues to be a problem, blame gets assigned elsewhere. “Most of the population is urban and doesn’t have a connection with agriculture. The decisions made about what we [in agriculture] can do are way too often determined by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.”


Dairy from cattle must be antimicrobial-free to make it on to consumer shelves. It is used for milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products that require healthy bacteria. [© Caroline Rodriguez]

“Food from animal origin is in general very safe,” says Barkema. Still, farmers stay on the safe side. Canadian farms have strict penalties for meat or dairy testing positive for antibiotics. In the dairy industry, this is especially important. Antibiotic contaminated dairy can’t be turned into bacteria-rich dairy products, like yogurt or cheese. For this reason, farmers take extra care to make sure their dairy products are free of antibiotics.

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