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.