Tuesday, February 14, 2012
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Confession – I haven’t had meat in 12 years. I’ve said no to hamburgers, roast beef, drumsticks, and bacon. While most people can get all the nutrients they need by living a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, for me that wasn’t the case. My doctor’s prescription? Eat meat. So now I’m trying to figure this whole thing out – as an adult, I’ve never cooked salmon or eaten at a steakhouse. Last week, I went to a restaurant and was served half a chicken. I looked around the table and asked “So… do I just cut it off the bone? How do I eat this?” Yes, it’s frustrating (and somewhat embarrassing) – but, for my health, I’m willing to learn.
I still feel a little guilty eating meat. I became a vegetarian at age 13 because I thought it was morally wrong. So, to appease my conscience I’m trying to eat local, organic meat. I went to the grocery store yesterday and on the packaging of some chicken breasts it read “Antibiotic-free.” This was a bit confusing to me. Why would animals need antibiotics if they weren’t sick? It turns out that antibiotics, such as penicillin, are added to animal feed and water to promote growth and prevent illness from unsanitary living conditions.
You may think that this just makes the meat healthier and less prone spreading disease when eaten. However, some doctors believe that the use of antibiotics in agriculture has lead to drug-resistant bacteria. Dr. Edward Chapnick, Director of Infectious Diseases, explained to me that there isn’t one antibiotic that can kill all types of bacteria (although wouldn’t that be awesomely innovative?). “Instead, each antibiotic is effective for only certain types of bacteria. When you kill some of the bacteria with a drug, it allows other colonies to flourish, thus building a ‘resistance.’” All humans and animals have both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in us and on us. For example some make us sick, while others help us properly digest food. But the bad bacteria that the antibiotic-laced feed and water doesn’t kill will become more prevalent.
“Studies have shown that bacteria that were previously only known in animals, are now found in people,” explained Dr. Chapnick. I asked him how they were transferred – does the simple act of eating meat lead to the accumulation of bacteria? If so, I might rethink my now carnivorous ways. Dr. Chapnick reassured me that it’s not that simple, but there are things that can make it easier to access antibiotic resistant bacteria. “People such as farmers who handle animals, feed, and clean up after them have been shown to harbor bacteria which are more resistant to the antibiotics that are in the feed,” he explained.
Ok – but what about me? I’m a city gal, how could I be affected? “It all comes down to how you prepare your food,” noted Dr. Chapnick. “Any bad bacteria on meat are killed once it’s cooked. However, if you cut raw meat on a cutting board and don’t wash it properly, or use the same knife to prepare lettuce for a salad, the bacteria are still alive and present.” Yuck. A good tip is to have a cutting board just for meat, and one just for veggies. This way you’ll never have to worry about transferring anything – just make sure you always wipe down your countertops and wash your hands after handling meat.
With all the food safety concerns cropping up over the past year, both the national and international communities are calling for it. So in response, the F.D.A. recently banned a class of antibiotics known as cephalosporins from being used in livestock. These drugs commonly treat pneumonia, strep throat and skin infections. It’s a step in the right direction, but these drugs aren’t used nearly as much in livestock as penicillin (which has yet to be banned).
I’ve found locally raised, organic, antibiotic-free meat to be more expensive, but I believe it’s worth it. Building my meals around whatever meat is on sale and establishing a good relationship with the local butchers at the farmer’s market can help with savings (sometimes they give you a bit of a discount if you’re a loyal customer). While some bigger name producers believe that doctors are overestimating the effects of antibiotics in livestock, I’d rather err on the side of caution.