Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).


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The world is using more antibiotics than ever before—and showing no signs of stopping. A new analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science predicts that worldwide consumption of the drugs will grow 67 percent by 2030. Over the same period of time, in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, the authors expect that antibiotic use will double.

The reason for the dramatic increase in antibiotic use, say the authors, mostly has to do with the planet's ever-increasing appetite for meat. Since the 1970s, meat producers have been dosing livestock with regular, low doses of antibiotics. For reasons not entirely understood, this regimen helps animals grow bigger. In the United States, 80 percent of all antibiotics already go to livestock, and the practice is becoming the norm the world over. This map shows the current global antibiotic consumption in livestock (in milligrams per 10 square kilometer pixels):

Map courtesy of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

As the middle class in the developing world grows, demand for meat—and use of the antibiotics to grow that meat cheaply and quickly—is expected to rise as well.

To get a sense of how quickly our global appetite for meat is growing, take a look at China. There, livestock producers are buying record amounts of corn and soy to feed a growing number of animals:

Jaeah Lee

As antibiotic use skyrockets, experts expect that germs will evolve to resist them. That's scary, considering that some of the same drugs we use on livestock are also our best defense against infections in humans. And suberbugs, several recent studies have shown, can and do jump from animals to people. In fact, another recent study predicted that antibiotic resistant infections will kill 10 million people a year by 2050. 

There's also evidence that antibiotics might soon stop working the way that meat producers want them to: A recent analysis concluded that the drugs are no longer making pigs bigger.

The good news: Despite loose federal regulations around antibiotic use on farms, American consumers are beginning to favor meat grown without drugs. And manufacturers are taking notice: Earlier this month, McDonald's pledged to serve only chicken raised without antibiotics, and Costco quickly followed suit.

Last year, I attended the annual conference of the California Dietetic Association, the state's chapter of the country's largest professional organization for nutritionists and dietitians. Its premier sponsor—and lunch caterer—was McDonald's. That won't be the case at this year's conference in April: The organization just voted not to invite the fast-food chain back.

Today a member of the California Dietetics Association shared the following letter from conference leadership on the Facebook page of Dietitians for Professional Integrity:

We would like to direct your attention to what the California Dietetic Association (CDA) has done to address our own issues surrounding sponsorship. We heard your concerns regarding CDA Annual Conference sponsorship and we have listened. We voted and McDonalds was not invited as a sponsor in 2015. This decision has impacted our finances; however, we believe it was important to respond to our member feedback. In addition, an ad hoc committee approved by the CDA executive board, reevaluated the sponsorship guidelines. The new sponsorship policy will be posted soon on Any questions regarding the new policy can be directed to Kathryn Sucher, CDA President-elect [email address redacted]
We look forward to seeing you at the CDA Annual Conference.
Your 2014-2015 CDA Executive Board

That's not to say that the conference organizers have ditched corporate funders entirely. According to the schedule (PDF), Kellogg's is sponsoring a panel called "The Evolution of Breakfast: Nutrition and Health Concerns in the Future," while Soy Connection, the communications arm of the United Soybean Board, is hosting a session titled "Busting the Myths Surrounding Genetically Engineered Foods" (and sponsoring a "light breakfast"). A few other sessions sponsored by corporations and trade groups:

  • "Why We Eat What We Eat in America and What We Can Do About It" (California Beef Council)
  • "Probiotics and the Microbiome: Key to Health and Disease Prevention" (Dairy Council of California)
  • "New Research – Understanding Optimal Levels Of Protein And Carb To Prevent Obesity, Sarcopenia, Type 2 Diabetes, And Metabolic Syndrome" (Egg Nutrition Center)
  • "New evidence of Non-Nutritive Sweeteners: Help or Hindrance for Weight and Diabetes Management" (Johnson & Johnson McNeil, Inc, LLC)
  • "Plant-based Meals from Around the Globe" (Barilla Pasta)

Still, says Andy Bellatti, a dietitian and leader of the group Dietitians for Professional Integrity, ditching McDonald's as a sponsor is a step in the right direction. "There's still a long way to go," he said. "But the McDonald's sponsorship was just so egregious. I'm glad they came to their senses and got rid of it."

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