More than 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. go to pigs, cows, chickens and other animals that people eat1 and at least 50 percent of all antibiotics made in China go to animals as well.2 Most of these antibiotics are not used to treat sick animals, but instead are given in low dosages to healthy animals to increase their weight. Studies showed that pigs given antibiotics need 10 to 15 percent less feed to achieve weight goals and since feed often accounts for 70 percent of total animal production costs, this meant higher profits for producers.3
While this practice has been going on since the 1950s,4 it is increasingly under scrutiny as researchers link it to antibiotic resistance in humans and animals and the emergence of superbugs. When animals ingest low levels of antibiotics over a period of time, the bacteria living in those animals become resistant to the antibiotics. If a person eats improperly cooked meat from animal that is resistant to antibiotics and becomes sick, then that person may not respond to antibiotic treatment.5 A 2005 Tufts study found that antibiotic-resistant infections cost the American health care system $50 billion per year.6 Others studies claim that cost to the system are $16 to $26 billion per year.7
Not all antibiotic resistance comes from animals, though it is considered by many to be a major contributor. Many U.S. poultry and meat producers believe that there is not enough evidence linking antibiotic use in animals to drug resistance in humans. Some argue that there will be larger numbers of sick animals if antibiotics were removed from animal feed and water sources.8
The World Health Organization recommends that prescriptions be required for all antibiotics given to treat sick animals and that countries should phase out the use of antimicrobials to promote animal growth if the antibiotics are also used for human treatment.9 This news analysis will compare and contrast efforts to ban, or at the very least, reduce the use of antibiotics in animals for non-therapeutic uses.
U.S. Efforts to Regulate Antibiotic Use in Animals
The United States has tried to regulate animal antibiotic for nearly 40 years. In 1977, the FDA announced a ban on some agricultural uses of antibiotics, but Congress subsequently passed resolutions forbidding these bans and the FDA removed them.10 Since then efforts by the FDA to ban non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in animals have not been successful. Recently, the FDA finished accepting public comments on their proposal to phase in the elimination of certain antibiotics used to stimulate animal growth and phase in requirements for meat and poultry producers to get a prescription before administering specific antibiotics to animals.11
The FDA has stated that it cannot afford formal proceedings, so it is pursuing a voluntary approach. The Agency wants pharmaceutical companies to reserve 200 antibiotics for human use only. If drug makers do not comply then they have to state on the drug labels that these antibiotics are given to animals. Some in Congress want a more aggressive approach, reserving seven full classes of antibiotics for human use only.12
Another U.S. challenge is that the responsibility for regulating non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in animals is shared by multiple government agencies at various levels. The FDA regulates the use of drugs. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researches animal antibiotic use, develops technologies to reduce antibiotic use and publishes guidelines to reduce risks of food safety hazards. The Center of Disease Control offers educational programs for antibiotic use on farms and funds state and local education programs as well.13
State departments of agriculture (for example Minnesota)14 monitor and enforce non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in animals. They screen raw milk for the presence of certain antibiotics, inspect dairy farms to identify extra-label use of antibiotics and to make sure drugs are stored properly, and provide educational campaigns. Also, the state departments of agriculture monitor animal feed by inspecting medicated feed manufacturing establishments to ensure compliance with regulations. In addition, they also inspect slaughtering plants and carry out tissue residue sampling. It is not clear if there are any standards across all 50 states and if the state departments of agriculture report their findings to any federal source.
Worldwide Regulations of Antibiotic Use in Animals
In contrast, the European Union has a strong top-down approach to regulating non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in animals. The European Union leads the world in reducing antibiotic use in healthy animals. Sweden (1986), Denmark (1998) and Switzerland (1999) were the first countries to unilaterally ban all non-therapeutic antibiotic growth promoters in animal feed.15 In 1999, the European Union backed a ban on penicillin and other antibiotics used to stimulate growth in farm animals. Within four years, antibiotic use in animals dropped 36 percent in Denmark, 45 percent in Norway, and 69 percent in Sweden.16 Furthermore, in 2006, the EU banned the feeding of all antibiotics to livestock to promote growth.17
Despite the ban, there are still problems with antibiotics in European farm animals. A study carried out in Germany by an environmental group found that half the samples of chicken sold in supermarket chains contained antibiotic resistant bacteria.18 German regulators found hundreds of cases of misuse of antibiotics by veterinary clinics, many of whom receive 80 percent of their revenues from the sale of antibiotics. Germany is considering strengthening its Pharmaceutical Products Act and reviewing veterinary rights to dispense drugs.19
European countries are not the only ones to ban non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in animals. In 2011, South Korea banned the use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion. The government plans to frequently check for antibiotic residue in animal feed. Veterinarians will still be able to treat sick animals with antibiotics.20
Some in the food industry are taking it open themselves to reduce antibiotics in the absence of regulations. Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Foster Farms have declared that they will greatly reduce the amount of antibiotics given to healthy chickens. McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Popeye’ have stated that they will not buy chicken that has been treated with fluoroquinolones, which are considered to be among the most powerful antibiotics available.21 Chipotle Mexican Grill, Compass Group, and Bon Appétit Management Company also do not buy meat from producers that use therapeutic antibiotics.22
Consumers are becoming more aware and demanding as well. The sale of antibiotic-free meat in the U.S. has increased 25 percent to $175 million over the past three years.23 Many grocery stores now carry antibiotic-free meat, including Safeway, Wholefoods, Trader Joes, and Harris Teeters. This awareness may drive regulators to make a change, though they face an uphill battle against pharmaceutical companies.
One National Academy of Sciences study found that eliminating non-therapeutic antibiotics from animals would cost about $5 to $10 per person per year.24 If this is truly the case, one wonders why there has not been a strong grassroots effort to change industry practice. Hopefully this will change in the future.
1 Tavernise, Sabrina. “Farm Use of Antibiotics Defies Scrutiny.” The New York Times. September 3, 2012.
2 Wu, Alex. “Livestock in China Given Too Many Antibiotics.” The Epoch Times. January 12, 2012.
3 Perrone, Matthew. “Does giving antibiotics to animals hurt humans?“ USA Today. April 20, 2012.
5 “Antibiotic Debate Overview.”
6 Klein, Ezra. “Wonkbook: Why you should care that 70% of antibiotics go into animal feed.” The Washington Post. April 12, 2012.
7 McElrath, Roger. “The Case for the Responsible Use of Antibiotics in Food-Producing Animals.” BSR. August, 14, 2012.
8 “Antibiotic Debate Overview.”
10 Tavernise, Sabrina. “Farm Use of Antibiotics Defies Scrutiny.” The New York Times. September 3, 2012.
12 Klein, Ezra. “Wonkbook: Why you should care that 70% of antibiotics go into animal feed.” The Washington Post. April 12, 2012.
13 “Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work on the Farm.” The Centers for Disease Control. May 17, 2011.
14 “MDA’s role in preventing antibiotic resistance.” Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
15 Flynn, David. “South Korea Bans Antibiotics in Animal Feed.” Food Safety News. June 7, 2011.
16 Perrone, Matthew. “Does giving antibiotics to animals hurt humans?“ USA Today. April 20, 2012.
17 de La Hamaide, Sybille. “Antibiotics for livestock vital to feed world: OIE.” Reuters. January 11, 2012.
19 Klawitter, Nils. “How Factory Farm Drug Abuse Makes Vets Rich.” Der Speigel. April 18, 2012.
20 Flynn, David. “South Korea Bans Antibiotics in Animal Feed.” Food Safety News. June 7, 2011.
21 “Antibiotic Debate Overview.”
22 McElrath, Roger. “The Case for the Responsible Use of Antibiotics in Food-Producing Animals.” BSR. August, 14, 2012.
23 Perrone, Matthew. “Does giving antibiotics to animals hurt humans?“ USA Today. April 20, 2012.
24 Klein, Ezra. “Wonkbook: Why you should care that 70% of antibiotics go into animal feed.” The Washington Post. April 12, 2012.