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Season 1, Episode 1

Antibiotics in Beef

How much truth is there to claims of risk caused by the treatment of beef cattle with antibiotics?

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Nobody wants to eat beef containing antibiotics, but there's a ton of misinformation out there on this controversial practice.

Some people think that beef we get from these cows contains antibiotics. This has never been true. Antibiotics are quickly metabolized by the body. This is why when you take antibiotics, you have to take them every day. Each drug has an established "withdrawal time" which is anywhere from 0 to 60 days, during which treated animals cannot go into food production. This is verified by the US Food Safety and Inspection Service, the FDA, and the EPA.

Some retailers market their beef as containing no antibiotics. This is deceptive, because no beef on the market contains antibiotics. In advertising they call this a "preemptive claim", saying something about your product that's also true of all similar products, in the hope that pointing it out will frighten consumers away from the competition. Don't be fooled by deceptive marketing.

The real concern is that using antibiotics in any species eventually evolves resistant bacteria. If such bacteria are in the meat and we eat it without properly cooking it, then it's possible for those resistant bacteria to transfer to us humans. Therefore, about 85% of ranchers in the United States follow the Beef Quality Assurance program, which restricts antibiotic usage to the narrowest spectrum that works, treats the fewest possible animals, and limits usage to the treatment or prevention of disease. The guidelines also recommend avoiding types of antibiotics that are used in human healthcare wherever possible, to minimize any possible transmission of bacteria that might be resistant to drugs we use on ourselves.

Some farmers, mostly of pigs, do use a drug called ractopamine which promotes faster muscle growth. This is called a sub-therapeutic use. This usage, while not medicinal, is still subject to a withdrawal time, and this specific drug is not used in humans. So why don't all farmers do this? One reason is that antibiotics are expensive, so farmers have to find a careful balance of using just enough to make economic sense without wasting money on unnecessary overuse.

The bottom line is that as long as you're cooking your meat, there is absolutely no realistic health concern about eating beef cattle that may have been treated with antibiotics. So enjoy your steak and hamburger, and don't worry about an imaginary dose of antibiotics.

Correction: Ractopamine is a beta-agonist, not an antibiotic. Rather than being subject to a withdrawal time, it is used only when concentration has dropped below 30 parts per billion.


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