Antibiotic Use in Food Producing Animals

A commonly stated statistic is that 80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are used in food animals. It is a startling statistic that is wrong and misleading for several reasons:

  • The number was deduced by comparing FDA studies on antibiotic sales for human and animal consumption. The FDA has strictly stated these studies should not be compared because their methods of data collection were not the same.
  • About one third of the antibiotics administered to animals are ionophores, which are animal-only antibiotics and belong to classes not used in human medicine.
  • Finally, it is true that more antibiotics are used in animals than in humans, but their population differences must be taken into account. The current human population in the United States is approximately 320 million. Compare that with more than 90 million cattle, 5.3 million sheep and lamb, 66 million hogs, 200 million turkeys and eight billion chickens on U.S. farms. Total body weight of livestock and poultry in the United States is roughly 3.5 times the body weight of humans, so it is logical that animals would require more antibiotics by volume than humans.

Antibiotic use to prevent disease, under the care and supervision of a veterinarian, is key to minimizing antibiotic use overall. Using low doses of antibiotics to keep animals healthy, especially during critical times like weaning, reduces the use of stronger, medically important antibiotics that must be used to treat them if they get sick. Antibiotic use policies like those in Europe and Denmark have demonstrated that banning low doses of antibiotics has resulted in more widespread illness in farm animals and an increase in antibiotic use to treat sick animals. Former USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, Scott Hurd, DVM, Ph.D., of Iowa State University has stated, “There seems to be little evidence after 10 years that public health has improved since the Danish ban on growth promoting and preventive antibiotics.” He argues that while many predicted a ban on growth promotion and preventive antibiotic use would reduce total antibiotic consumption in livestock, the Danish government reported that overall antibiotic use actually increased by 110 percent from 1998 to 2008. Furthermore, the antibiotics that have been used to treat illness are considered more important to human medicine than those that were being used to prevent illness. Overall, Hurd says the data suggests the antibiotics being used to promote growth before the ban were actually preventing a great deal of illness.