Heidi Vittetoe knows a thing or two about raising healthy animals. In 31 years, she’s sent more than 6 million pigs to slaughter from her Washington County, Iowa, farm.
To ward off possible illnesses, Vittetoe routinely injects weaning piglets with virginiamycin, a prescription-grade antibiotic. For nearly the rest of their lives, she adds 10 grams of other antibiotics to every ton of the herd’s food and water supply to prevent diseases and promote growth – something that should make her “golden in the eyes of the consumer,” she said in an interview.
“The animals we raise are the animals we eat,” Vittetoe said. “We have nothing to gain by having unsafe food but everything to gain by having food that consumers will accept, and antibiotics are a tool in achieving that.”
But preventive health measures don’t guarantee safe food, according to environmental health scientist Ellen Silbergeld, who told News21 that thousands of ranchers like Vittetoe have “squandered the use of antibiotics” by feeding and injecting healthy cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys with the same drugs used to cure human infections.
The result is bacteria that can no longer be killed by antibiotics and are still present in animals when they go to slaughter, said Silbergeld, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The bacteria end up in consumer meat products sold at grocery stores across the country.
The journal Clinical Infectious Diseases reported this year that nearly half of all beef, pork, chicken and turkey purchased from 26 retail stores in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Los Angeles and Flagstaff, Ariz., contained drug-resistant bacteria. While thorough cooking may kill even resistant pathogens, Silbergeld said the risk of infection from cross-contamination is too high when handling raw meat and poultry.
“Antibiotic resistance is an immediate health risk,” she said. “This is the thing that will kill you.”