March 7, 2011
The Debate On Your Plate!: Science Fair Project Finds Antibiotics in Meat
Sixth-grader's award-winning experiment examines meats purchased close to home
Chad Campbell, a sixth-grader at Topsail Middle School in Hampstead, North Carolina, has been a regular winner at his school and regional science fairs. The young scientist told us all about the project he embarked on this year: an experiment to expose the rampant use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.
Why did you pick this topic for your science project?
I have always been interested in microbiology. Last year I did my project on coliform bacteria. When I was researching bacteria to get ideas for this year’s project, I kept seeing information about bacteria resistance and “super bugs.” I learned the main cause of bacteria resistance was the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in humans and animals.
I also learned that 70 percent of all antibiotics in the United States are given to healthy food animals to promote growth and to compensate for unsanitary and crowded conditions. It has all been very eye-opening, and I couldn’t wait to start my project.
How did you go about doing your experiment?
First, I had to find a way to test meat samples for antibiotics. I found a certified inspector-grade test called Premi Test to test my meat samples. The test detects antibiotics and sulphonamide residues in meat.
I gathered 22 meat samples from 22 different grocery stores in a 60-mile radius. I processed the meat samples in a sterile environment. I used a meat press to extract 250 microliters of meat juice into a test ampule. The ampules were incubated for three hours at 64 degrees Celsius, then compared to the control samples and pH indicator.
The test results were very interesting: 15 percent of the meat samples tested positive for antibiotics.
What have you learned from this project?
I learned that there is a serious problem with the overuse and misuse of antibiotics. I had no idea that over 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to healthy food animals for non-therapeutic reasons. I learned about Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a deadly strain of staph bacteria that is resistant to treatment with multiple antibiotics.
I feel that the federal government needs to act on this serious problem, and Congress needs to pass new legislation to curb antibiotic resistance because the FDA cannot solve this problem in a reasonable time.
What are some of the human, animal, and environmental effects of antibiotics in meat?
Antibiotics in meat leads to antibiotic resistance in humans and in factory-farmed animals as well.
Food-borne bacteria originating from the production of food animals cause life-threatening illnesses in the U.S., which adds to the nation’s healthcare costs by 40 to 50 percent.
The environmental effects are just as bad. Groundwater, surface water, and soil are contaminated from the nearly two trillion pounds of manure generated in the United States each year. This manure contains resistant bacteria, creating a huge pool of resistance genes available for transfer to bacteria that cause human disease.
What kind of response have you gotten from other students, teachers, judges, science fair attendees, and others?
I have been a vegetarian all of my life and have always had to explain to my friends and teachers why I am a vegetarian. My project was a great opportunity for me to prove to everyone why I choose not to eat meat.
Since my project, I have had friends ask me how to become a vegetarian. I am always bringing samples of Tofurky turkey slices for kids to try at school. I have even had a couple of students ask me if I could test their lunch for antibiotics.
The judges appreciated my project because they have never seen a project like it before. At the Regional Science Fair I also won a special award for Medical Research. Many people were surprised at my findings and very interested to know which grocery stores tested positive for antibiotics. I think my project opened a lot of eyes, and I gave people a lot to think about. Hopefully, they will take action and make changes in their diet.
UPDATE: On March 26, 2011, "The Debate On Your Plate!" won first place at the North Carolina Science and Engineering Fair. In his display, Chad included information about the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (H.R. 965), a federal bill that would phase out the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on factory farms. Chad was also nominated to compete in the Broadcom Masters National Science Fair, a program of the Society for Science & the Public, in October 2011.