Is the biggest danger to American families the food on their tables? The Debate Surrounding the Overuse of Antibiotics in Livestock and Poultry Populations

By: Lindsey Anderson

Approximately eighty percent of the antibiotics produced in the United States are not used by humans, but are fed to livestock and poultry.[i]  An equally staggering statistic reveals that every year, approximately two million United States citizens contract infections from bacteria that are resistant to one or more of the antibiotics designed to treat those infections, and at least 23,000 of them die as a result.[ii]  The FDA has developed a plan to help food producers phase out the use of antibiotics for nonmedical purposes (“production purposes”) such as enhancing growth and improving feed efficiency.[iii]  This approach is a collaborative one, which encourages animal drug sponsors to work with the FDA to revise the current approved use conditions in order to preserve medically important uses of antibiotics and remove the production uses.[iv]

The main problem surrounding the production purposes of antibiotics is that these antibiotics kill off weak bacteria in healthy animals, creating a perfect environment for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to develop and multiply.[v]  The most common way for these antibiotic-resistant bacteria to make it to the dinner table is through the consumption of the meat that grew them.[vi]  However, these bacteria can get into American homes in other ways, such as on the bodies of workers that handle the contaminated meat, as well as through the soil, water, and air that come into contact with the contaminated animals’ waste.[vii]  This problem is further aggravated when resistant bacteria “teach” other bacteria how to be resistant.[viii]

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called on those in human and animal medicine to work together to solve this deathly problem.[ix]  These groups must, among other things, develop control points that restrict the transfer of the resistant bacteria via the soil, water, and food from agricultural settings, develop better diagnostic tools to determine resistance earlier, and promote judicious use of antibiotics to extend their useful life.[x]  The threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria will continue to increase unless all those involved in the American food and medical productions work together to solve what has become a fatal problem.  The FDA, the CDC, and the USDA have all recognized that current policies need to change.  American families should be able to put food on their tables without the concern of consuming bacteria that are resistant to modern medicine. 

[i] FOOD, FARM ANIMALS and DRUGS, The National Resource Defense Council, (last visited Aug. 18, 2015).

[ii] Ctr. for Disease Control and Prevention, Antibiotic Resistant Threats in the United States, 2013, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1, 11, (last visited Aug. 18, 2015).

[iii] U.S. Food and Drug Admin.: Animal & Veterinary, FDA Strategy on Antimicrobial Resistance – Questions and Answers, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, (last updated Jun. 11, 2015).

[iv] Id.

[v] FOOD, FARM ANIMALS and DRUGS, supra note i. 

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Nat’l Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring Sys., Antibiotic Use in Food-producing Animals: Tracking and Reducing the Public Health Impact, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (last updated Sept. 4, 2014).

[x] Id.