Issue Brief

Antibiotics and Industrial Farming 101
Each year, tens of thousands of Americans die and hundreds of thousands are hospitalized because of bacterial infections resistant to antibiotics.

Why are our antibiotics becoming less effective while bacteria grow stronger?

Antibiotic overuse on industrial farms is a big part of the problem. The largest U.S. meat and poultry producers feed antibiotics to healthy animals over much of their lives to make them grow faster and to compensate for the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in which they are bred and slaughtered. Hundreds of studies conducted over the past four decades demonstrate that these practices breed superbugs that end up in our air and water, our food, and ultimately our bodies.1 When they infect us, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are more difficult and costly to fight and more likely to cause death.

Antibiotic overuse by the numbers

In 2011, drugmakers sold 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics for use on industrial farms2 — the highest amount ever reported and four times the amount sold to treat sick people (Figure 1).

In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, reported that about 90 percent of these antibiotics were sold for use in food animals’ feed and water.3 Industrial farms in the United States use about 300 milligrams of antibiotics to produce
each kilogram of meat, which is about six times more than what is used in Denmark, the world’s leading pork exporter.4


What health leaders say

Representatives of the FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified before Congress in July 2010 that there is a definitive link between the use of antibiotics in food animal production and antibiotic-resistant infections in people.5


The Cost of Antibiotics Resistance

• Each year, drug-resistant infections cost the U.S. health care system up to $26 billion7 and prolong hospital stays by
more than 8 million days.8

• In 2005, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, killed 19,000 people — more than HIV/AIDS,
emphysema, or homicide.9

The American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, Infectious Diseases Society of America, and many other leading U.S. medical and scientific organizations stated in a letter to Congress in September 2011: "The evidence is so strong of a link between misuse of antibiotics in food animals and human antibiotic resistance that FDA and Congress should be acting much more boldly and urgently to protect these vital drugs for human illness. … Overuse and misuse of important antibiotics in food animals must end in order to protect human health."6

What we can do

The answer is straightforward: Stop giving antibiotics to healthy animals. Here are several more specific steps to take.

Prevent the overuse of antibiotics used in animal medicine

A bill before Congress, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, would eliminate the practice of giving important antibiotics — those that are used in human medicine — to animals to make them grow faster or to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. These drugs would be available only to treat animals, flocks, or herds for actual diseases.

The FDA is taking steps to ask drug companies to voluntarily stop marketing antibiotics for purposes other than treating diseases. Once these voluntary policies are final, the FDA has said it will monitor drug companies closely and mandate changes if antibiotic misuse persists.

Put veterinarians in the driver’s seat

Antibiotics for animal use are available over the counter at feed stores and on the Internet, but they are available for humans only by prescription. The FDA is taking steps to require a prescription or its equivalent before antibiotics are given to animals or added to their feed. Once this requirement is in place, veterinarians would be involved in animal care, ensuring that antibiotics are used judiciously.

Make antibiotic use for food animals transparent

The FDA already collects data on antibiotic sales from veterinary drug companies, but it reports only overall sales by most classes of these drugs. The agency should report more detailed information, including how often antibiotics are distributed in feed, in water, and by injection; whether the drugs are also approved to treat humans; and whether they are sold over the counter or by prescription. The FDA should also collect more information, including for which animals the drugs are intended and the percentages that are being used nontherapeutically.

Congress is considering legislation that would broaden the FDA’s authority to collect more data from drug companies and food producers. The agency needs this information to know whether the policies described above are working and, if not,
what additional actions must be taken.

Read the label

Consumers are in the best position to influence food producers. Buying meat and poultry bearing labels that say “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics administered” encourages companies to use drugs responsibly.

Date added:
Apr 10, 2013
Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming
Antibiotics in Food Animal Production
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1 - The Pew Charitable Trusts, Antibiotic Resistance and Food Animal Production: A Bibliography of Scientific Studies (1969-2012), last modified Feb. 28, 2013,

2 - U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA Annual Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Food-Producing
Animals in 2011. Feb. 5, 2013,

3 - Karen Meister, supervisory congressional affairs specialist, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, letter to Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY), April 19, 2011.

4 - Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009: Hearing on H.R. 1549, before the U.S. House of
Representatives Committee on Rules (statement of Frank M. Aarestrup and Henrik Wegener, National Food Institute,
Technical University of Denmark, Søborg), (July 13, 2009)

5 Antibiotic Resistance and the Use of Antibiotics in Animal Agriculture: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Health,
Committee on Energy and Commerce, July 14, 2010. (Statement of John Clifford, Ali Khan, and Joshua Sharfstein,

6 - Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics et al., joint letter to Congress, “Sound Science: Antibiotic Use in Food Animals
Leads to Drug Resistant Infections in People,” Sept. 6, 2011.

7 - R.R. Roberts et al., “Hospital and Societal Costs of Antimicrobial-Resistant Infections in a Chicago Teaching
Hospital: Implications for Antibiotic Stewardship,” Clinical Infectious Diseases 49:8 (2009): 1175-1184, cid.oxfordjournals.

8 - Roberts et al., “Hospital and Societal Costs.”

9 - R.M. Klevens et al., “Invasive methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections in the United States,” Journal of the American Medical Association 298(15) (Oct. 17, 2007): 1763-71. See also, H.C.
Kung et al., “Deaths: Final Data for 2005. National Vital Statistics Reports” 56(10) (2008), National Center for Health Statistics,

Related Resources

Top Food Companies Moving Away From Overuse of Antibiotics on Industrial Farms

Consumers across the United States are demanding meat and poultry raised without antibiotics—and large producers, restaurants, and other institutions are listening. Following is a list of some leading companies offering responsibly produced food.


FDA Reports that 25 of 26 Antibiotic Makers Will Comply with New Policies

On March 26, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that 25 out of 26 drug companies that sell antibiotics for growth promotion “confirmed in writing their intent to engage with FDA as defined in Guidance #213.” FDA introduced this policy in final form Dec. 11, 2013, to curb antibiotic overuse and increase veterinary oversight on industrial farms. More

200,000+ Americans to FDA: Require Real Veterinary Oversight of Antibiotics on Industrial Farms

Three months ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took an important step to protect people from superbugs. For the first time, it issued a set of proposed policies that would require food producers and feed mills to obtain a veterinarian’s order before adding antibiotics to animal feed or water. More

New FDA Policies on Antibiotics Use in Food Animal Production

Surveys of the animal production industry by the U.S. Department of Agriculture demonstrate that many farms and ranches administer antibiotics to healthy animals at low doses to offset overcrowding and poor sanitation and to accelerate livestock growth—practices that the medical and public health communities document as a significant factor in human antibiotic resistance. In 2013, FDA took steps to address these concerns.



MRSA, Football, and Industrial Farms

MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a type of bacteria that can infect a person’s skin, bones, lungs, heart, brain, and blood. Unlike common staph, MRSA does not respond to traditional antibiotics such as penicillin, making it more difficult and costlier to treat, and more lethal.