Farm Antibiotic Use: Getting Worse Before It (Maybe) Gets Better

If you have never engaged with it, the thorny topic of antibiotic use on farms—primarily for raising livestock, though there’s some use on fruit as well—can be daunting.

The multi-syllabic drug names all sound the same, the federal directives governing their use have opaque, uninformative titles, and the sides disputing the pro and con each have decades of arguments on their respective sides. Which can make it, you know, a little hard to catch up.

But if you are at all concerned about this issue—and really, any meat-eater should be—you can barely do better, for an introduction, than an obscure government document published a few weeks ago by the US Food and Drug Administration: the 2012 Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals. (You can find the original here.)

Before I get to what’s in the report, here’s a brief primer: Since about 1950, most of the meat animals raised in the United States have received drugs as a routine part of their raising, in either their feed or the water they drink. Though the drugs are antibiotics, which most of us think as treatments for diseases, most of the compounds going to meat animals are not given to them to cure anything. On the contrary, they are given either to prevent disease in the confined conditions in which the animals are raised, or—in a still-mysterious process first identified decades ago—to make the animals put on weight more quickly.

Photo of a chick.

Nick’s Organic Farm has conducted research with state, federal, and non-profit agengies to help refine organic practices. Photograph courtesy Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture

This practice is deservedly controversial. Any time an antibiotic is deployed, it encourages bacteria to become resistant. That is an acceptable risk, to some degree, when the antibiotics are being used for something as important as curing disease. It becomes less acceptable when they are being used just as a production tool, to cut costs or shore up bad hygiene. The evidence that inappropriate antibiotic use in livestock creates resistant bacteria is substantial (there’s a long bibliography here) and the FDA has been working to rein in overuse since the 1970s. After decades of political interference, the agency finally took action—though it proposed only voluntary measures, not regulation with the force of law—at the end of last year.

Which brings us to the recent publication. For most of the time that the FDA has been working on the issue of livestock antibiotic use, it was doing so in the dark. There was no data to show how many antibiotics were being used in livestock, because companies which make the drugs held that to be proprietary informtion. In 2008, the FDA negotiated a deal in which the companies would divulge some data, primarily types of drugs being sold and amounts. The current publication is the fourth to report those results.

And here’s what it shows: Since the FDA began asking companies to count, antibiotic use in meat animals has risen by 16 percent. In 2012, animals received 14.61 million kilograms of antibiotics, or 32.23 million pounds per year.

(For contrast, the most recent accounting of human use of antibiotics—which is not from federal data, but from a private sales database maintained by a company called IMS Health—comes out to 7.7 million pounds per year, though that figure is from one year earlier than this new animal one.)

Photo of organic feed.

Organic feeds supplement the diet of layer and broiler chickens at Nick’s Organic Farm. Photograph courtesy Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture

It’s really striking that antibiotic use in livestock has been rising even at a time when consumers and regulators are pushing for change. (Look at an earlier post of mine for details on that.) The reason change is being demanded is because the drugs used on animals are functionally identical to many drugs used in humans—which means, when resistance develops as a result of farm use, the drugs won’t work to combat infections in humans. You can see that overlap in the report, too: Over four years, the use of tetracycline in agriculture rose by 13 percent, cephalosporins (a class that includes the popular drug Keflex) by 37 percent, and penicillins by 40 percent.

Some other numbers: 97 percent of the drugs used in animals are sold over-the-counter—that is, without any veterinarian seeing the animals or writing a prescription; and 94 percent are sold to be given to an entire flock or herd in feed or water—which signals use for growth promotion and disease prevention more than disease treatment.

The FDA’s attempt to restrict livestock antibiotic use only went into effect in December, so it will take several years to know whether its new rules succeed in forcing consumption down. But these numbers suggest how big the problem has gotten. And if we want to rein in resistance and catch up to European countries that have banned or severely restricted farm antibiotics, how far we have to go.

Photo of frozen chicken.

Frozen hens prepare for shipping from Nick’s Organic Farm. Photograph courtesy Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.