What Happens When You Eat Animals Who Eat Drugs

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Earlier this summer, Sanderson Farms, the nation’s third-largest poultry producer and the supplier of more than 10.6 million chickens to supermarkets throughout the South every week, was accused of false advertising. Sanderson is up-front and even “proud” about its industry-leading use of antibiotics, but the company’s “100 percent natural” chicken, consumer advocates claim, also contains pesticides, hormones, steroids, other pharmaceuticals and recreational drugs, including ketamine.

Sanderson is fighting for the right to call its chickens natural. But what happens when you eat an animal who enjoys regular access to prescription drugs—better access than the people who eat it, in some cases? (Most Sanders Farms factories are located in states that rejected the Medicaid expansion.)

As Gizmodo reported, you won’t get high.

Nobody has ever overdosed on drumsticks from ravers. And most supermarket-bought chicken has but little traces of either hormones or antibiotics on them by slaughter time, “numerous studies” have shown. For there to be drugs in our food, “it would require a deliberate breaking of the rules,” an M.D. who works in FDA compliance told the website.

But! That’s not the point.

Antibiotic use in commercial meat is still linked to the rise of “superbugs,” antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the sometimes-harbinger of particularly unpleasant diseases. And even if a major corporation were to ever be unscrupulous—impossible, but just consider—we already eat of random drug effluvia with almost everything else we consume.

Everybody has some drugs in them.

U.S. Geological Survey reviews in 1999 and 2000 found “measurable amounts” of at least one prescription drug (and in most cases, many more) in 80 percent of the water sampled from 139 streams in 30 states. In a later EPA review, obtained by the New Republic in 2013, half of the wastewater from 50 well-populated areas tested positive “for at least 25” of 56 different common prescription drugs.

As the Harvard Medical School notes:

The drugs identified included a witches’ brew of antibiotics, antidepressants, blood thinners, heart medications (ACE inhibitors, calcium-channel blockers, digoxin), hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone), and painkillers.

Other drugs that have been found include caffeine (which, of course, comes from many other sources besides medications); carbamazepine, an antiseizure drug; fibrates, which improve cholesterol levels; and some fragrance chemicals (galaxolide and tonalide).

The EPA review also found a surprising amount of “high blood pressure medications.

At least for now, that chemical cocktail doesn’t harm humans—at least as far as we know, and at least not directly. Or at least not yet. The drugs in our water do harm fish, frogs and other aquatic creatures. A surprisingly small amount of estrogen causes male fish to sprout eggs, as the New Republic noted.

Intersex fish with both female and male sexual organs have been found in the Potomac River.

“Who would have thought that those trace amounts would be having that impact on fish?” said a surprised official from the FDA, which is in charge of food and drug safety regulations. Who, indeed.

An ecosystem disrupted is a food supply possibly interrupted.

But drinking and bathing in pharmaceutical water is also a new development in human progress. What does that do to a body, exactly? And say. There are new drugs out there every day. What happens when the environment loads up on experimental drugs? We’ll find out soon enough. We’re in an ongoing experiment.

“All of these drugs out there on the market are going to be discharged into the environment” eventually, as Nick Shroech, executive director of Detroit’s Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, told the magazine. And nobody at any level of government can say what that means. “No one seems to know,” he said.

According to Harvard Medical School, “one man’s use of testosterone cream can wind up putting as much of the hormone into the water as the natural excretions from 300 men.” Perhaps Big Pharma and its permanent home in our water supply can be blamed for the internet age’s toxic masculinity.

Meanwhile, the drug question hasn’t made much difference to Sanderson. 

The company still makes a marketing gimmick out of playing semantics with whether its product can be called “antibiotic-free” or not.”

Well, actually, all meat and poultry in your supermarket is technically free of medicines, since the chemicals have to be out of the creature’s system before it can be sold! Sanderson’s ads helpfully remind. The drugs in the chicken house, though. Those are real. As is plenty incentive to keep the supply line open.

Despite the bad press and the lawsuit, it’s still a good time at Sanderson Farms. The company’s stock price has almost doubled with the last year, up from $74.07 a share to trade at $145.02 on Wednesday.

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