Livestock producers routinely give antibiotics to healthy animals in food production to prevent disease outbreaks in highly crowded conditions. Routine antibiotics also serve as growth promoters, bringing livestock to market faster and on less feed.
Considering all the pledges by food companies to serve antibiotic-free meat, you would expect antibiotic use in livestock to be in decline. A recent analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of 2015 antibiotic use in food production, however, paints a different picture.
The report shows that antimicrobial use in farm animals increased by 1 percent from 2014 to 2015. Antibiotics are a type of antimicrobial, but not all antimicrobials are antibiotics.
This is alarming news as antibiotic overuse creates antibiotic resistance, reducing antibiotics' effectiveness to cure infections.
To give a sense of scale: In 2011, less than 8 million pounds of antibiotics were used in human medicine, while nearly 30 million pounds were used in animal meat and dairy production.
The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association and the World Health Organization are all in agreement that unnecessary use of antibiotics on farms is detrimental to public health.
"Sales of medically-important antibiotics for livestock were up 2 percent over 2014 numbers, and have risen 26 percent from 2009 through 2015," David Wallinga, a senior health officer with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told TriplePundit. "This is alarming because the use of antibiotics in livestock is contributing to a public health crisis."
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, sometimes known as superbugs, are a significant health threat. In fact, more than 2 million people get infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria annually, and 23,000 die each year from infections from superbugs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC maintains a list of the top drug-resistant threats and shows that multi-state outbreaks of multi-drug resistant salmonella are becoming common in the United States.
"Medically-important antibiotics are widely used on livestock, and this is significant in human medicine because they are identical or from the same class to ones used on humans," Wallinga told us. "This is important because of how resistance works. If you use a drug in the same form, you can acquire antibiotic-resistant bacteria."
"For the past 40-plus years, antibiotics have been routinely fed to farm animals to prevent the spread of disease in chickens, pigs, and cattle that live together in the same barn building or in the same feedlot," explained Janice Neitzel, founder of Sustainable Solutions Group, a management consulting firm that guides food companies in making animal welfare sourcing improvements.
"Most of this use is not medically necessary," she continued. "It turns out that feeding antibiotics also promotes faster growth of the animal, so less feed is required to get the animal to slaughter weight. Retailers, restaurants and food manufacturers need to put policies in place limiting antibiotic use to the treatment of disease."
Because antibiotics create weight gain in livestock, it is also interesting to note that these drugs might do the same in humans. A study by New York University found there may be a connection to the increased obesity rate in humans and use of antibiotics in livestock.
Certainly, antibiotic use in meat production is not the only antibiotic use that is causing drug-resistant bacteria. The use of antibiotics needs to be dramatically decreased overall and limited to only medically-important uses. While overuse of other types of medicine doesn't directly impact others, the overuse of antibiotics has widespread social concerns. It is imperative that antibiotics remain effective to promote human health.
Image credit: Flickr/National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff. Des Moines, IA USA
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.