Pick Your Poison: Antibiotics and Hormones

The Holiday Season is upon us. You’ve likely already heard Christmas music playing in stores and are starting to see decorations gracing the neighborhood. It’s still November, you guys! Let’s take it one holiday at a time. I mean, I think we’re skipping over one of the best food eating extravaganzas ever. Oh yeah, and there are family and friends to catch up with, and what Thanksgiving is complete without that whole tryptophan conversation? Yes, let’s blame the food coma on an amino acid you consume in large amounts everyday instead of the true culprit, eating too much. I’m right there with you, just take a nap and you’ll be back for late night turkey sandwiches, no problem. Bust out the stretchy pants if you need to, just don’t blame it on tryptophan.

With all holidays, food remains a big focus and also a source of concern. Did I make enough? Will everyone like it? Will this be okay on the counter for four hours? For some food savvy folks, they might also be worried about antibiotics and hormones in that big bird roasting in the oven.

When it comes to consumer concerns related to poultry, we can immediately cross one of those worries off the list – hormones. Yes, despite widespread misinformation, the use of hormones in poultry production is prohibited in the United States, and has been since the 1950s. However, it is not uncommon for marketing pros to take advantage of consumers’ lack of knowledge about the topic. You may remember seeing a product, maybe even that turkey awaiting the big dinner in your freezer, bearing the claim “No Added Growth Hormones.” What you probably didn’t look for was the fine print that is required to go along with that statement, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” Unfortunately, the average consumer may be more inclined to choose a poultry product with a label stating the obvious over another product that’s not taking advantage of consumer ignorance. If you prefer ham over turkey for the annual feast, fear not, hormones are banned in pork products as well. That prime rib, however, is not held to the same standards, as hormones can be used in the production of beef in the United States. And if you’re eating a tofurky, well, we hope it tastes delicious. We’ll leave the soy-estrogen discussion for another time.

Another growing consumer concern with farm animal production is added antibiotics. These are getting a lot of publicity these days thanks to proposed labeling regulations in San Francisco and recent reports on the state of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics help us recover from serious bacterial illnesses, however, many consumers are confused about the difference between bacterial and viral infections. This could cause them to demand antibiotics to treat a virus. Unfortunately, these medications do nothing for the virus and may play a large part in the growing problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Animals, on the other hand, can’t demand antibiotics, but they can be raised with antibiotics to encourage growth and feed efficiency, in addition to protecting the health of the animals. However, the over application of unnecessary antibiotics in animals is also adding to antimicrobial resistance.

So, what can we do? Well for starters, don’t freak out … at least not yet. It’s not an antibiotic free-for-all and there are numerous agencies set up to test for antibiotic use, such as National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS), Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), The U.S. National Residue Program (NRP), and National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS). There are also existing regulations in place to help phase out the use of antibiotics for growth and feed efficiency, while encouraging antibiotics used for illness be administered by veterinarians. Even though these are currently voluntary regulations, some of the big-name food producers and buyers (such as restaurants) are opting to go the antibiotic-free route. The 2015 NARMS study showed that, among other things, that antibiotic resistance in ground turkey has decreased, as well as a decreased usage of antibiotics in animals in general. It will be interesting to see what the NARMS reports look like in future years as more producers choose not to use antibiotics. Obviously, there is more that needs to be done to combat this serious public health concern, but the onus does not lie solely on those raising the animals. Humans can do their part by only using antibiotics when truly necessary, taking the full prescribed amount, and safely discarding any unused medications.

If you are worried about your Thanksgiving feast, check to see if the company you purchase your turkey from uses antibiotics, but don’t stress over the hormones. Enjoy this time with family and/or friends, indulge in your favorite food traditions, and remember, looser clothing is usually the safest bet.

Have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!





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