Are Antibiotics Being Used Less In Agriculture? Shockingly…NO

“Antibiotic-free” trumpet a good number of labels in our market’s dairy aisles, egg section, and meat department. Yes, we’ve heard a lot of good news about the reduction of antibiotic use lately.

Consumer awareness of the dangers of pre-emptive “medically important antibiotics” (those used in humans)  being used on livestock has prompted a number of major livestock players and retailers to issue statements on how they’ve reduced antibiotics throughout their supply chains. Great! But a recent report from the FDA reminds us that the fight against antibiotic overuse and the superbugs that they potentially create is far from over. 

Released in early December 2015, the 2014 FDA report on annual antimicrobial use in livestock analyzed the sales and distribution of antibiotics for last year. Within the key findings, they list a 23% increase in the use of antibiotics over the last five years. Some other shockers (though not particularly different from other report years), include:

  • A 3% increase of “medically important”antibiotic use from 2013 to 2014
  • 62% of antibiotics sold for livestock use were “medically important”
  • 97% of “medically important” antibiotics are sold over the counter and this number has not changed in the last five years.

Yikes! Despite real progress in reducing antibiotic overuse, it is still a rampant and growing problem. In fact, as Tom Philpott of Mother Jones explains, this new data is even more concerning because meat production and consumption in the U.S. is slightly on the decline. Referring to the five years between 2009 and 2014 he notes that antibiotic use has become more concentrated:

Widespread overuse of antibiotics creates “superbugs” (bacteria that grow over many generations to become resistant to the drugs). The CDC reports that 23,000 people die in our country each year due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Because roughly 80% of the antibiotics used in this country go to livestock, and 62% of those drugs are also used for humans, many people believe that we can prevent some “superbugs” by setting limits on agricultural use. Sarah Borron of Food and Water Watch explains why her organization is leaning on Congress to take action.

What we know about antibiotic use in agriculture is troubling, and what we don’t know is more troubling still. Every year, two million Americans face antibiotic-resistant infections, and approximately twenty percent of those infections come from foodborne illness.

We can’t afford to waste medically important antibiotics for questionable purposes in agriculture. That’s why we’re calling on Congress to pass legislation that would ban such nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics in livestock and poultry.”