Livestock in U.S. gobble up the antibiotics [Updated]


The U.S.-raised animals we eat consumed about 29 million pounds of antibiotics in the last year alone, according to a first-ever Food and Drug Administration accounting of antimicrobial drug use by the American livestock industry.

The release of the figures -- in a little-noticed posting on the FDA’s website Friday -- came in response to a 2008 law requiring the federal government to collect and disseminate antibiotic use in livestock as part of the Animal Drug User Fee Act. The Union of Concerned Scientists, which authored a 2001 report that was highly critical of the routine practice of feeding antibiotics to livestock, estimated the yearly animal consumption of antibiotics to be eight times as large as the volume of antibiotics produced for human consumption in the U.S.

Mardi Mellon, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment program, said the new report corroborates the 2001 findings of the group’s report, titled “Hogging It.”


“Antimicrobial use in U.S. agriculture is way out of proportion” to what is necessary, said Mellon. “That poses dire risk to human health by undermining the effectiveness of these drugs,” she added.

Farmers feed these medications to the animals they raise for market in an effort to prevent disease from spreading among flocks of poultry and herds of livestock living in crowded and often unsanitary conditions. The medications also promote faster growth in many animals. The ubiquitous use of these medications is controversial because they are used to counter the effects of raising livestock in conditions that are unhealthy and widely considered cruel.

But they represent a major public health concern too: the widespread administration of antibiotics to prevent infections in animals has made those same antibiotics less effective in fighting off disease in animals and in humans. That is because, when under constant bombardment by existing antibiotic medications, the bacteria that cause some diseases evolve at an accelerated rate just to stay alive. The results: new strains of bacteria that are resistant to existing antibiotics, and a population that is is increasingly vulnerable to them. [Updated Dec. 22, 12:25 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to new viruses that are resistant to existing antibiotics.]

The American Medical Assn. this summer called antibiotic resistance “a major public health problem” and called on the Obama administration and Congress to take action to address it.

The Obama administration recognizes the problem, but has not acted to stem antibiotics’ use on animals, said Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We hope the FDA will motivate the administration to take concrete steps to protect public health by limiting inappropriate antimicrobial use,” she added.

Farmers used more Tetracyclines (including Chlortetracycline and Oxytetracycline) than any other antibiotics--a total of 4.6 million kilograms of the medication yearly.