By the Numbers: Livestock on Antibiotics

Overuse of Antibiotics on Hogs and Cows Could Pose a Serious Health Threat to Humans
30.6 Million. That’s how many pounds of antibiotics were administered to livestock in the U.S. in 2010, according to an annual report released by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimate that the amount of antibiotics used every year by North Carolina hog farms alone exceeds the total used to treat all human infections in the United States. Ranchers are able to buy antibiotics over the counter at farm supply stores to keep their animals growing and healthy despite confined and often unsanitary living conditions.

“Nearly 80% of antibiotics used in the U.S. go to agriculture, and most of these drugs treat healthy animals,” Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY) wrote in a recent editorial. “We don’t sprinkle antibiotics on children’s cereal every morning to prevent illness. Why allow industrial farms to do the equivalent with animal feed?”

Slaughter is at the forefront of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which seeks to ban the preventative use of human antibiotics in animals raised for food. The bill has been endorsed by over 300 organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)

“Government officials are playing with fire by not banning non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics that are used in human medicine,” says CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson. “They’ve known of the risks of routinely feeding antibiotics to animals, but have been unable to fend off the drug and livestock industries’ opposition. That opposition makes passage of PAMTA challenging, but one deadly outbreak of antibiotic-resistant food poisonings could push the legislation over the line.”

The most vocal opponent to PAMTA is the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). “Our industry doesn’t know whether we’re part of the problem because there is no science linking antibiotics in food animals to antibiotic resistance,” NPPC spokesperson Dave Warner says. “All antibiotic use means safer meat, and that’s our bottom line.”Other industry groups share the NPPC’s view, including the Animal Health Institute, which represents major pharmaceutical companies like Bayer HealthCare and Pfizer.

But a report by the PEW Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming cites over 100 peer-reviewed studies that conclude administering antibiotics to livestock puts the general public at risk of developing resistance. “There is scientific consensus that antibiotic use in food animals contributes to resistance in humans,” Frederick J. Angulo, Ph.D., of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health, said in a 2009 article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.