December 23, 2010

New FDA Numbers Reveal Food Animals Consume Lion’s Share of Antibiotics

Ralph Loglisci

Ralph Loglisci

Food and Health Policy Writer

Antibiotics, one of the world’s greatest medical discoveries, are slowly losing their effectiveness in fighting bacterial infections and the massive use of the drugs in food animals may be the biggest culprit. The growing threat of antibiotic resistance is largely due to the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in both people and animals, which leads to an increase in “super-bacteria”. However, people use a much smaller portion of antibiotics sold in this country compared to the amount set aside for food animals. In fact, according to new data just released by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), of the antibiotics sold in 2009 for both people and food animals almost 80% were reserved for livestock and poultry. A huge portion of those antibiotics were never intended to fight bacterial infections, rather producers most likely administered them in continuous low-dosages through feed or water to increase the speed at which their animals grew. And that has many public health experts and scientists troubled.

For years scientists concerned about the threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria in food animal production have been trying to figure out just how much antibiotics producers are using each year.  The best they could do was come up with rough estimates. That is because the data was never publicly available, until now.

In accordance with a 2008 amendment to the Animal Drug User Fee Act, for the first time the FDA released last week an annual amount of antimicrobial drugs sold and distributed for use in food animals. The grand total for 2009 is 13.1 million kilograms or 28.8 million pounds. I found the stories covering this revelation interesting, but they did not convey the whole picture. It is important to understand how this amount compares to the total available for people. So, I decided to find out for myself and contacted the FDA for an estimate of the volume of antibiotics sold for human use in 2009. This is what a spokesperson told me:

“Our Office of Surveillance and Epidemiology just finished an analysis based on IMS Health data. Sales data in kilograms sold for selected antibacterial drugs were obtained as a surrogate of human antibacterial drug use in the U.S. market. Approximately 3.3 million kilograms of antibacterial drugs were sold in year 2009. OSE states that all data in this analysis have been cleared for public use by IMS Health, IMS National Sales Perspectives™.”

3.3 million kilograms is a little over 7 million pounds. As far as I can determine, this is the first time the FDA has made data on estimates of human usage public. Below is a breakdown of the FDA numbers prepared by my colleague, Dr. David Love, also from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which compares the estimated amounts of human usage with food animal usage.


Take a look at the data for tetracycline. More than 10 million pounds of the antibiotic were sold for the use in food animals. That’s more than all of the antibiotics combined set aside for humans in 2009. Many studies suggest the high use of tetracycline in food animals, particularly in pigs, has lead to the increased rates of bacterial resistance to the antibiotic, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA.

Despite this new information, the hog industry denies the suggestion that it is overusing antibiotics. In response to the FDA’s report, the National Pork Producers Council also pointed out to Food Safety News’ Helena Bottemiller that, “ionophores … are not used in human medicine, they don’t have anything to do with the effectiveness of antibiotics in people.” That statement is inaccurate. All uses of antibiotics have the potential to decrease the effectiveness of antibiotics in people. Ionophores are no exception. While several industry funded studies determined that ionophore use in animals is “not likely” to transfer resistance from animals to people, researchers couldn’t come to a definitive conclusion because ionophores can lead to bacterial resistance to the antibiotic bacitracin, which is commonly used to treat skin and eye infections.

Every time an antibiotic is used there is a risk of adding to the growing pool of antibiotic resistance. LivableFutureBlog readers might recall an October blog post in which Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, warned that, “Bacteria respond to chemical structures, not brand names, and resistance to one member of a pharmaceutical class results in cross resistance to all other members of the same class.”  Silbergeld says when bacteria develop resistance to one member of that class of antibiotics it can be resistant to all.

So, what is the government doing to ensure we don’t squander the effectiveness of antibiotics for human use on the production of food animals? Since President Barack Obama took office, the FDA says it has taken several steps. Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Principal Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, took a stand last year by stating that the Administration, “supports ending the use of antibiotics for growth and feed efficiency” in food animals. However, instead of requiring industry take action, the FDA released a draft-guidance last June that essentially asks industry to voluntarily end the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in food animals and include veterinary oversight or consultation on all antibiotic use.

Lawmakers such as Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and Senator Barbara Boxer have been introducing versions of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) for more than a decade that would mandate antibiotic use changes in food animals. Earlier this year it looked like the bill had a good chance of passing, but the bill failed to make it to the floor of the House or Senate. While not perfect, PAMTA would ban the use of medically important antibiotics as growth promoters. Passage of PAMTA would be an important step in saving the potency of antibiotics for human use. However, the current version of the bill could be stronger if it followed more closely the recommendations from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production final report, which calls for a ban on the non-therapeutic use of all antibiotics, not just those considered medically important, in food animals.

Now that we officially know that food animals use an overwhelming majority of our antibiotics, I hope it is more clear to everyone that legislation limiting the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in livestock and poultry must be passed. The next battle, which industry has already begun, is defining what non-therapeutic use will constitute. Producers are already claiming that the use of antibiotics for growth promotion has decreased, maintaining current low-dose usage is aimed at disease prevention. Regardless, all low-dose usage of antibiotics can lead to a significant increase in antibiotic resistance. As Dr. Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin warned, “It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body.”


  1. The one comparison missing that is vital is the percentage of antibiotics used per pound of animals versus the same for humans.

  2. Excellent article and great work on gathering important new data from the FDA – a big step forward. I’m curious though about what the FDA means by “selected antibacterial drugs” in its statement. Did the FDA only quantify a subset of antibacterials used in humans (which would underestimate the total amounts used)? And, as mentioned in the previous comment, what quantities of each antibacterial class were examined? Both of these questions should be answerable by the data-set the FDA now has in-hand, and would improve the prospects for developing risk assessments on the use of continuous, low-dose antimicrobials by the animal production industry.

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  5. Posted by Bill Desmond

    I graduated from an agricultural college 40 years ago, and knew this then. And thats a major reason why I don’t eat meat and why one is foolish to eat commercial raised meat products. Besides the antibiotics, their laden with nitrates, hormones, and other chemicals to keep them fresh, add taste, etc. Its basically dead rotting flesh everyone!

    Have to eat meat? Make friends with some one who hunts. Wild caught will be much healthier, esp. for the young. Better yet, give it up. Its unethical, not necessary, and overall harmful to the planet.

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  7. Bill Desmond you are an ignorant and uneducated person to say these things as truth.
    Do you eat salad mixes, cabbage, spinach, broccoli or tomatoes? They have 10 to 100 x the amount of nitrates compared to meat. Do you consider those foods harmful? Hormones are NOT used at any time for poultry and pig farming. It is illegal!!! Natural hormones are used in dairy and cattle farming like BST in dairy. Did you know that a cow given BST and an organic cow not given BST will have the same amount of estrogen in the milk produced from each animal?
    One of the many reasons why antibiotics are not working as well in humans anymore is because HUMANS misuse antibiotics. Not taking the prescription for the total amount of days and using antibiotics when you have a cold. Antibiotics used in animal farming are more regulated and controlled then any product we use.
    If you choose to not eat meat that is fine, it’s your choice. But do not spread these lies about animal farming.
    People are meant to eat meat and if everyone consumed meat in moderation we would be much healthier for it.

  8. Ross,

    Thank you for pointing this out. How many people are prescribed antibiotics by their doctor for a cold (which antibiotics do nothing for) or fail to take the full allotment of antibiotics prescribed?

    Everyone else,

    Not only are antibiotics regulated in livestock production by mandating which can be given but also mandating withdraw periods before an animal can be harvested. This fall an official with the CDC testified in a congressional hearing that there is NO SCIENTIFIC LINK between the use of antibiotics in livestock and the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

  9. This is very important information !There is much dis-information and secrecy all around how meat & poultry is produced in America. There are very big players, all their money and the incredible profits they rake in at stake. Health of the animals and those people that choose to eat them is not their concern at all, it’s the bottom line profit margins with no cruelty left aside, how fast and cheap a living animal can be shuffled throuigh the gauntlet. I would strongly recommend reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is a carefully researched and informed source. I have even more reasons not to eat meat. I can see by the other contributors to this discussing that many just don’t know what they are talking about or perhaps they work with the “industry” to perpetuate the myth of meat safety. Just look at all the strange illnesses that are showing up…. ludicrous to claim that there is no “scientific basis” for the training of antibiotic resistance brewing in the factory farms…. don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that connection: bird flu, swine flu obviously created and breed by the rampant misuse of medications…

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  11. Mycall8,
    I thought Bill had an ignorant and uneducated post but your post takes the cake for most ridiculous I have ever read.
    Do you personally know anyone that works for these ‘big players’ or do you personally know any of the farmers that raise animals? Or do you just sit behind your computer and throw out accusations based on things you read from your daily blog? The people that raise these animals have families, sons, daughters, grandchildren, and friends they care for deeply. Do you think for one second they would intentionality produce a product that was harmful to any of them? So how can you say the health of the people is not a concern to any of those who raise the animals. The opposite is true. They care for those animals, the people that eat their meat and the environment they live in just as much as any of you. I would like you to go work on a farm for one month and then tell me the money they make is not justified. I thought one of the benefits of working was to make money. Do you not make money at your job?
    Do you even know where bird and swine flu come from? It almost always originates with wild or range fowl in a third world country. The fowl then pass the virus on to other animals or humans. Those wild fowl or humans then bring the virus to the animals raised on conventional farms. It has never originated from a farm. Also, what does antibiotic use and bird / swine flu have in common? NOTHING!!! Antibiotics are used to control bacteria, those are viruses. In no way does using antibiotics in farm raised animals propagate any type of bird / swine flu.
    I am sorry to tell you but you are the one that obviously knows nothing about this topic. I am not trying to perpetuate any myths about eating meat. All I am trying to do is state facts and not spew information I got from a blog or documentary. The food we have access to in this country is some of the best and safest in the world. Wake up!!


  13. Posted by agreporter

    Truth in Food, take a look at that paper you cite. The calculation assumes two things: 1) that food animal biomass is five times that of human biomass; and 2) that human and companion animal antimicrobial use is twice that of food animal antimicrobial use (this is taken from the 2000 Animal Health Institute press release which estimated food animal use at 17.8 million lbs and human use at 35.2 million lbs). Multiplying five times two gives the factor of 10 you quote. But according to the FDA figures cited above, animal use is actually about four times greater than human use, rather than two times smaller — which means that the “10 times” figure is off by a factor of roughly eight. You industry folks are ALWAYS citing this figure, when you must have known for years that it is wildly inaccurate. Give it up.

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  15. Posted by mommy

    Can you send me a link to that FDA report that states that 80% of antibiotics in the U.S are used for livestock and poultry?

  16. I see a lot of defensiveness around the use of antibiotics in farm animals here. I don’t think anyone is necessarily intentionally setting out to hurt anyone, other than maybe the competition. However, if there is a better, more natural way, why don’t we take it? Rather than defending the ongoing use of an unnatural approach using antibiotics, tell me why it is a better choice than say Denmark’s approach, which has shown that after a short adjustment period, more pigs are born per litter and if left a couple weeks longer with the mom, end up gaining the same amount of weight in the end. (Source: Scientific American – Our Big Pig Problem, April 1, 2001).

    Teresa Harlow

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