health concerns

U.N. Calls Antibiotics in Food a Health Crisis on Par With AIDS

The CDC says 23,000 Americans die a year from drug-resistant bacteria. Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

At its annual gathering this week, the U.N. General Assembly really threw down the gauntlet on companies that keep lagging in the fight against antibiotics in the food supply. To suggest a need for urgency, it’s moved drug-resistant bacteria into a very rare class: the same one occupied by AIDS and Ebola, marking just the fourth time ever that the U.N. has applied the word crisis to a health issue. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was pretty blunt about the “fundamental threat” he thinks the problem now poses to the planet:

If we fail to address this problem quickly and comprehensively, antimicrobial resistance will make providing high-quality universal healthcare coverage more difficult if not impossible. It will undermine sustainable food production. And it will put the sustainable development goals in jeopardy.

Two of the biggest instigators of this crisis are fast food (which requires ungodly amounts of meat) and factory farming (which must meet that ungodly demand in part by pumping animals full of antibiotics like it’s Miracle-Gro). There’s been a halfhearted attempt to go antibiotic-free in Big Food, but it’s not like changes that massive can happen overnight, and the problem will just keep worsening in the meantime. Estimates say antibiotic use in countries like Brazil, China, and Russia could double by 2030. Right now, about 700,000 people worldwide die every year from drug-resistant infections.

Advocacy groups argue other countries expect America to lead the way on this, but the signs are less than encouraging: Just this week, the Natural Resources Defense Council released its big yearly report that does an accounting of antibiotic use by restaurant chains. There was moderate improvement overall — Subway made good on its promises to source safer chicken, and Panera, Chipotle, and Chick-fil-A all continue to have better-than-average scores. But 16 of the top 25 failed outright, a group that includes places you’d expect to be bringing up the rear (KFC, Arby’s, Dairy Queen) and ones you might not (Starbucks).

U.N. Calls Antibiotics in Food a Crisis on Par With AIDS