Antibiotics are not necessary for livestock production but they are essential to modern medicine. Find out why they are used on farms, the problems they pose and what you can do to keep you and your family healthy.

Why are antibiotics used on farm animals?

Since the 1950s, it has become routine practice in many countries to add low levels of antibiotics to the feed or water of healthy poultry, cattle, and swine to promote faster growth and prevent infections that tend to occur when animals are housed in crowded, unsanitary conditions.

Why is the use of antibiotics on farms a problem?

The unnecessary use of antibiotics on farms is a key culprit in the rise of drug-resistant bacteria that pose a growing public health risk.

By overusing antibiotics on farms and feeding them to healthy animals we’re making the drugs doctors rely on to treat illnesses like pneumonia, strep throat, and childhood ear infections less effective.

Furthermore, we have few new antibiotics to replace those that are no longer effective.

80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are used not in humans but in animals. Worse still, an estimated 83 percent of the antibiotics given to livestock in the United States are administered to entire herds or flocks without regard to whether the animals are sick.

Many studies show a multitude of resistant organisms on meat and poultry products. For example, a recent study of meat and poultry from five U.S. cities found Staphylococcus aureus on 47 percent of samples. Ninety-six percent of those samples were resistant to at least one antibiotic, and 52 percent were multi-drug resistant.

Drug-resistant infections are estimated to cost Americans up to $26 billion dollars per year.

How does farm-use of antibiotics contribute to drug-resistant diseases in people?

When farm animals receive antibiotics in doses too low to kill all the infectious bacteria in them, those bacteria that survive and flourish do so because they are resistant to the drug. As they multiply, they pass on their resistance.

These bacteria even share the traits that make them drug-resistant with other species of bacteria, leading to widespread drug-resistance and the creation of bacterial super-bugs.

How do these drug-resistant bacteria spread?

By food: Studies have found drug-resistant bacteria on meat and poultry products and on food crops irrigated with animal-waste-contaminated water. Bacteria on food are carried into the kitchen where other foods can be cross-contaminated by contact with infected knives, cutting boards, our hands and other surfaces. We can then spread these bacteria to others.

By air and water: Drug-resistant bacteria have been found in drinking water near hog facilities in three states and have been detected in the air downwind from industrial swine facilities.

By livestock workers: Those who work in livestock operations can accidentally carry drug-resistant bacteria in their clothing and on their bodies, unwittingly passing them on to their families, friends, and communities.

What can be done?

This May, NRDC filed a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration to finally end the use of antibiotics in animal feed. But while NRDC is seeking to end this abuse of antibiotics once and for all, you can take the following steps to protect youself:

  1. When shopping for meat, look for these labels that certify products come from farms that only use antibiotics on animals to cure infections and not for any other “non-therapeutic” uses:
  2. Prepare foods safely at home — follow the food-safety handling tips in our grilling guide.
  3. Urge the FDA to phase out the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals.
  4. Urge your representative to support the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA).

Learn More

Raising Resistance: Feeding Antibiotics to Healthy Food Animals Breeds Bacteria Dangerous to Human Health (NRDC Factsheet)

This article is republished with permission from the National Resource Defense Council's Smarter Living group.

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