- January 8 - Every year in the United States 25 million pounds of valuable antibiotics -- roughly 70 percent of total US antibiotic production -- are fed to chickens, pigs, and cows for nontherapeutic purposes like growth promotion, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. This finding -- 50 percent greater than the estimate of the livestock industry for all animal uses -- is the first transparent estimate of the quantities of antibiotics used in meat production.
The report is also the first to show that the quantities of antibiotics used in animal agriculture dwarf those used in human medicine. Nontherapeutic livestock use in chickens, pigs, and cows accounts for 8 times more antibiotics than human medicine, which is using only 3 million pounds per year.
"The meat industry's share of the antibiotic-resistance problem has been ignored for too long," said Dr. Margaret Mellon, Director of the Food and Environment Program at UCS and co-author of the new report. "Antibiotics are a precious resource and should be used in animals only when necessary."
Until now, health officials and citizens had to rely on incomplete industry estimates to design effective responses to the antibiotic-resistance problem. According to the new UCS report, "Hogging It: Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock," the total use of antibiotics in healthy livestock has climbed from 16 million pounds in the mid-1980s to 25 million pounds today. Of that, approximately 10 million pounds are used in hogs, 11 million pounds in poultry, and 4 million pounds in cattle.
"The excessive use of antibiotics by the livestock industry is sobering," said Dr. Charles Benbrook, an independent economist and co-author of the report. "Feeding antibiotics to animals from birth to slaughter may modestly improve meat industry profits, but it puts everyone's health at risk. It is time to rethink how pigs, cattle and poultry are raised in the United States."
Available industry data appear to underestimate the usage of antibiotics and are far too general to help scientists explore the linkages between drug use in livestock and the spread of resistance. With no government-backed data available, the authors of the report devised a methodology for calculating antibiotic use in livestock operations from publicly available information, including herd size, approved drug lists, and dosages. The researchers acknowledge the need for more complete, up-to-date data on livestock antibiotic use. They invite the pharmaceutical industry, which holds the production data, and the animal livestock industry, which could compile usage information, to bring better data to the public arena. But new data must be transparent and verifiable.
"The public has been flying blind," said Mellon. "The government should act now to collect the needed data. The price of complacency could set us back to an era where untreatable infectious diseases are regrettably commonplace."
UCS recommends that the Food and Drug Administration establish a system to compel companies that sell antibiotics for livestock use to provide annual reports on the quantity of these drugs sold. The US Department of Agriculture should improve the completeness and accuracy of its periodic surveys of antibiotic use in livestock. The FDA, USDA, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should speed up implementation of its government-wide action plan, which calls for the establishment of monitoring systems and the assessment of ways to collect and protect the confidentiality of usage data.
The FDA, which oversees the approval and cancellation of veterinary drugs, will discuss the use of antimicrobial drugs in food animals at a public meeting, January 22-24.
A full copy of the new report can be found on the web at www.ucsusa.org. The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit alliance of thousands of committed citizens and leading scientists working to preserve our health, protect our safety and enhance our quality of life. UCS has used rigorous scientific analysis, innovative policy development, and effective citizen advocacy to achieve practical environmental solutions.
* PLEASE NOTE: In this press release we use the terms antibiotic and antimicrobial interchangeably. The term antimicrobial encompasses substances, whether naturally occurring or synthetically produced, directed against all microorganisms. Antibiotic is a narrower term that some scientists reserve for only naturally occurring substances that destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria.