If you still eat “conventional” meat — you know, the factory-farmed, antibiotics-fed stuff — you’re eating a whole lot of antibiotics. For the first time, the FDA revealed a whole lot of antibiotics are given to U.S. livestock — 28.7 million pounds a year (PDF), to be exact.

In comparison, humans go through just 3 million pounds of antibiotics a year, according to a 2001 Union of Concerned Scientists report.

Why’s this worrying? Well, hopefully you already know that it’s a bad idea to take antibiotics that aren’t specifically prescribed for you. The FDA’s been cautioning us not to do that for years. In fact, the FDA went so far as to urge meat producers to use less antibiotics earlier this year, “amid rising concern that extensive use in animals contributes to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria afflicting humans,” according to the LA Times.

But until now, we didn’t know how bad the antibiotic problem was — because meat producers didn’t have to report how much antibiotics they were using. It was only in 2008 when Congress mandated meat producers reveal this information. That’s why we now have the 28.7 million pounds figure for 2009.

The number doesn’t yet tell us a whole lot, according to Food Safety News Today, which points out that the figure “did not break out the portion used to treat sick animals from those to promote growth or prevent disease.” Why not? “The agency said that breaking out the data would have disclosed confidential business information,” FSNT reports. Confidential business information happens to be exactly what the meat producer industry claimed when fighting the 2008 Congress mandate to release the combined figure, too.

But the Union of Concerned Scientists did attempt to distinguish between the two figures in its 2001 report, which estimated the antibiotic use “in the absence of disease” at 24.6 million pounds a year.

So what now? According to FSNT, “Legislation to restrict the use of drugs for growth promotion and disease prevention in food animals has been introduced in Congress several times but has never advanced beyond committee.” Now that we’ve got at least one official antibiotics figure of frightening proportions, perhaps legislation will advance more easily.

In the meantime — seriously — avoid animal products that aren’t organic or specifically labeled as antibiotic-free. As Grist’s Tom Philpott points out, the use and abuse of antibiotics in livestock has already “given rise to a novel strain of antibiotic-resistant staph (MRSA), known as ST398, that’s widely present in our vast hog and chicken factories.” Let’s try not to create more novel staph strains.

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