Use of Antibiotics in Animals Continues to Climb

Despite dire warnings that our most valuable drugs could soon be rendered useless, factory farms continue to gobble up antibiotics in record numbers.

February 19, 2013

Free bonus with your filet mignon: An added dose of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

If you believe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and dozens of other healthcare organizations around the world, the problem of antibiotic resistance—wherein common bacterial infections no longer respond to any of the antibiotics approved to treat them—is becoming so big that we will soon be living in a "post-antibiotic world" in which doctors have few, and even no, options for curing common infections.


FDA Won't Ban Antibiotics in Farming

Public health agencies have been trying to increase public awareness of the problem, encouraging people to take antibiotics as little as possible and avoid "antibacterial" products in the home. But factory farms have ignored those warnings—and they show no signs of cutting down on the rampant, indiscriminate, and unnecessary use of these important drugs, according to new figures from the Food and Drug Administration.

Sales of antibiotics fed to animals living in filthy factory-farm conditions ticked up last year about 2.3 percent, according to the FDA's most recent statistics. As in years past, animals produced for food eat up over 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States.

"The net change from last year of 2 percent doesn’t constitute a big change," says Keeve Nachman, PhD, MHS, program director of the Farming for the Future program at Johns Hopkins' Center for a Liveable Future. "If anything, this is a reminder that FDA hasn’t yet taken meaningful action to curb the misuse of antibiotics in food animal production," he adds.

How Antibacterial Chemicals End Up in Your Food

Disturbingly, sales of penicillins, one of the most medically valuable class of antibiotics on the market, increased, as did those for tetracyclines, another vital class of antibiotics used to treat, among other things, urinary tract infections. In 2012, a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found an increase in drug-resistant urinary tract infections caused by the same strains of E. coli bacteria commonly found in factory-farmed chicken, suggesting that these bacteria are becoming resistant to the drugs most commonly used to treat them.

There was also a 23-percent increase in the sale of antibiotics called lincosamides, Nachman points out. Those are commonly used to treat staph infections, like MRSA, even though staph are becoming increasingly resistant to lincosamides. "If their use in animals is increasing, this isn’t reassuring," says Nachman.

All the while, animal production has remained relatively constant over the past few years, he adds, so it's hard to tie antibiotic sales and use to an increase in animals going to market.

If you don't want to eat drugged meat, your best option is to buy certified-organic meat or meat produced locally by farmers who can vouch for their practices. Reassuring-sounding labels like "antibiotic free" aren't independently verified, so any factory farm can slap them on a label, whether its animals are fed antibiotics or not.

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