Hormones and antibiotics in US meat: what you can do about it

DISCLAIMER: I am not a registered dietitian. I am a student who is studying nutrition and preparing to become a registered dietitian, though. I still do want to share with you nutrition and healthy living topics that I find interesting and am learning about in my classes or through my own research.

While this particular topic is something that played into my personal decision to become a vegetarian about a year ago, I did not write this post to convince others. I simply wanted to share what I learned in my summer class two weeks ago because I think it’s important to know about the current US meat industry and what your options are.

antibiotics in meat

Why are antibiotics given to animals raised for meat in the first place? Well the answer is two fold, one reason is to prevent disease and the other is to promote growth (1). Disease prevention in meat producing animals is a legitimate concern though- animals living in close quarters have increased odds of contracting a disease. Also, antibiotics can increase the growth of animals without the animal having to necessarily consume extra food. Furthermore, it is worth noting that nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics are administered to animals each year in the world (typically in their feed) compared to about 7 million pounds administered to humans (1). Now why should you care? Well the World Health Organization (WHO) believes that administering antibiotics to animals is contributing to decreased effectiveness of our current antibiotics as well as antibiotic resistance (1). Antibiotic resistance is scary because we may reach a point where certain diseases or infections are unable to respond to our current antibiotics and these so called “superbugs” can causes major problems for the entire world (2).

As of 2012 the FDA recommended that animals raised for meat are to only be administered antibiotics if they are sick and to have a veterinarian’s approval. Unfortunately, some of the meat industry is not listening to this recommendation-they do not want to give up their “magic” growth promoter. So what does this mean for US meat consumers? Meat producing animals have to be under a certain regulated antibiotic level before they are slaughtered, but this does not mean they are not being fed antibiotics up to this point regardless of the FDA’s recommendation to only fed them to animals who are sick. Due to the concern of antibiotic resistance, some places, such as the European Union, even have outright bans on the use of antibiotics in animal feed as a way to promote growth, but the USA is not among them (1).

hormones in meat

Now, if you guessed that hormones are given to animals to promote growth, then you are correct. Animals administered hormones will rapidly gain weight and this will occur without having to fed the animal more food (1). The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) only allows cattle and sheep to undergo hormone treatments, but not pigs or poultry. In fact, over 3/4 of the cattle produced in the USA are treated with hormones (1). This practice of allowing hormones in some meat animals is criticized around the world and many countries object to this practice. Just like antibiotics, hormones treatments are outright banned in the European Union and they won’t even import meat that has been treated with hormones (1). Some concerns of hormone treated animals include the possibility that the hormones in animals may be influencing/messing with human hormone levels, that hormone use may carcinogenic, and that they may have environmental consequences such as affecting our water supply and changing fish reproductive cycles (1 &3).

options and considerations

1. Eat meat less frequently. Replace a few meals a week that contain meat to vegetarian or fish options. Although, fish may also be affected by hormones and antibiotics fed to meat producing animals- we are not really sure yet.

2. Buy organic meat. For meat to be organic it must be raised without hormones and/or antibiotics. This is a costly practice to the farmer and thus they charge more money for organic meat so that is something to keep in mind if you are on a budget. Maybe replace one or two meat centered meals a week with organic meat and make the rest of your meals vegetarian.

3.Become a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian. Now I did say I won’t push my practices on others, I just thought it was worth mentioning because vegetarians, even lacto-ovo ones, are consuming no animal products or at least less of them. Thus, vegetarians of all kinds are likely consuming less hormone and antibiotic containing products in their diet. This is personally one of the reasons I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian! Although, hormones can be present in dairy products, since cattle are allowed to be treated with hormones. So if this is a concern then organic dairy products would be another option.

Overall, if you want to lessen the amount of hormones and antibiotics you may be consuming through meat ,consider buying organic meat, going vegetarian, or combing the two practices-replace a few non organic meat meals a week with organic meat meals and make the rest of your meals vegetarian.


1. Understanding Food Principles and Preparation, fifth edition, pg. 145, Amy Brown

2. Antibiotics and the Meat We Eat. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/28/opinion/antibiotics-and-the-meat-we-eat.html?_r=0

3. American Beef: Why is it Banned in Europe? http://preventcancer.com/consumers/general/hormones_meat.htm

Does hormone and/or antibiotic use in US meat concern you, why or why not? If so have you made any dietary alterations because of your concern?

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