Myth: Antibiotic Use In Livestock Production Is Increasing And This Is A Human Health Risk


Antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production is strictly regulated by officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and meat and poultry is inspected in plants by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure that it complies with all federal safety rules. Issues surrounding antibiotic use and resistance are extremely complex and involve both human and veterinary use. While recent news has focused on veterinary antibiotic use, many experts have cautioned against overuse of antibiotics in humans for decades.

In the 1940s, antibiotics became available in general medicine. One decade later, the medical community cautioned in medical journals against the overuse of antibiotics to treat illnesses for which they were not warranted because scientists recognized even then that overuse in humans had the potential to create resistant strains.

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Concerns about the overuse of antibiotics in humans continued throughout the following decades. A 1999 study of pediatricians in the journal Pediatrics 1 found that more than half of doctors reported writing 10 or more antibiotic prescriptions in the past month that they believed to be unwarranted and did so in response to parental pressure. Similarly, research involving interviews with patients reveals that patients often exaggerate symptoms and pressure doctors to secure a prescription for antibiotics even when it is not needed. By and large, those interviewees believed that antibiotics were needed to treat everything but the common cold. 2

Just as antibiotics, used judiciously, are important in ensuring human health, they also are important in ensuring animal health. Antibiotic use in livestock production has been relatively steady over time, but in responding to concerns about the development of new, antibiotic resistant bacteria, attention seems to have shifted toward agriculture. For more than 40 years, antibiotics regulated and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been used to treat sick animals, prevent illness and maintain the health of animals.

And in all cases, they must be used properly. In livestock and poultry, antibiotics may be used to treat, control and prevent diseases. Some antibiotics offer an added benefit of enhancing livestock and poultry growth when administered, but, according to a 2007 survey, only an estimated 13 percent of antibiotics are used in growth promotion and heightened attention to the issue is discouraging such use even more.

Some critics argue that the use of antibiotics in food animals could create strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and ultimately infect humans, but years of research have failed to prove that this evolution is occurring or that it is risking human life. One often-cited statistic comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which claims that 70 percent of antibiotics produced in the U.S. are fed to livestock, a statistic they cannot possibly calculate considering that antibiotic use in humans is not tracked. Even so, one would expect the 302 million head of American livestock and 6.27 billion American chickens and turkeys to require more antibiotics than 309 million people who weigh a fraction of a full grown steer and far less than a typical market hog.

Many cite Denmark, where non-therapeutic antibiotic use was banned, as the model. But the elimination of antibiotics at the health maintenance level in Denmark has not led to a substantial impact on the incidence of antibiotic-resistant food-borne illness in humans.

According to an article by risk assessment expert and former USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Scott Hurd, DVM, Ph.D., of Iowa State University, "There seems to be little evidence after 10 years that public health has improved since the Danish ban on growth promoting and preventive antibiotics."

Additionally, according to Hurd, although many predicted that a ban on growth promotion and preventive antibiotic uses would reduce total antibiotic consumption in livestock, the Danish government reported that "for production animals consumption [of therapeutic antibiotics] has increased gradually by 110 percent from 1998 through 2008." 3 And the therapeutic antibiotics that are now being used are considered more important in human medicine. Overall, Hurd says the data suggest that the antibiotics previously used for growth promotion were preventing a great deal of illness, especially in pigs.

  1. Bauchner, H, et al., Parents, physicians and antibiotic use, Pediatrics, Vol. 103 No. 2 February 1999, pp. 395-401.
  2. Patients interviews and misuse of antibiotics, Clinical Infectious Diseases, 2001 (accessed July 16, 2010).
  3. Hurd, H.S., Danish Experience Offers Lessons for U.S. Antibiotic Use, Spring 2010 (accessed July 26, 2010).