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If You Eat an Animal That Ate Drugs, Will It Affect You?

Some of our cows and chickens are on drugs. The relative safety of those drugs is the subject of ongoing debate, and some are more common than others. Last month, Bloomberg reported that Sanderson Farms is being sued for allegedly dosing its chickens with ketamine.

Your next order of chicken nuggets probably won’t plunge you into a k-hole—even the most desperately K-addicted cow will be clean by the time it’s slaughtered and sent to market. Still: Could it? If a couple of cows were hypothetically fed a controlled substance, could that dead cow conceivably get some unassuming supermarket shopper high? Are effects of any substance transferrable to a human via the flesh of the animal that consumed it?

To address this question we reached out to a number of experts in food safety and chemistry—and while they spoke primarily to the hypothetical effects of un- or improperly-digested antibiotics (the more plausible scenario, after all), the answer would seem to apply to any substance. (Mycologists, however, were able to advise us on animal-to-human consumption of psychedelic mushrooms.) That answer, by the way, is a definite yes—but try not to let that interfere with your dinner plans.

Rich Sachleben, PhD

An expert at the American Chemical Society and a fellow in Chemical Development for Momenta Pharmaceuticals who spent thirteen years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

It depends on what it is. If it’s a drug that humans are particularly sensitive to, and enough of it came through, absolutely. It doesn’t even have to be a hypothetical. It could just be a case where someone, either deliberately or accidentally, exposed an animal to the drug—and if the levels are high enough, and the animal didn’t excrete it in time, then that could pass into humans at potentially hazardous levels. That’s particularly true for the people who are most sensitive—children, the elderly, and people who have some sort of illness. If you have kidney disease, or heart problems, and some drug gets through that happens to be bad for kidneys or the heart, sensitive people could actually have a reaction to that that could imperil their health. It’s far-fetched, but not totally implausible.

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