Press "Enter" to skip to content

Antibiotics in Livestock Pose Major Public Health Risk

Here's an ag-related bill Rep. Kristi Noem should get on board with: H.R. 965, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. This bill, from Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), would reduce the public health threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by restricting the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock. Non-therapeutic—that means farmers aren't treating sick critters; they're just pumping drugs into their cows and pigs to make them grow faster.

According to FDA findings cited in the bill text, 80% of antibiotics disseminated in the United States in 2009 went directly into animals we eat. That distribution puts a lot of antibiotics into our rivers, lakes, and soil, where bacteria have ample opportunity to evolve resistance to our drugs.

Resistant bacteria already kill 70,000 people a year in American hospitals. Norwegian hospitals made significant progress against this problem by cutting their use of antibiotics. But when the ag-industrial complex pumps four times as many unnecessary antibiotics into the environment, hospital-based solutions alone aren't enough to combat this public health risk. If we want penicillin and tetracycline to keep working, we need to sharply reduce antibiotic use in agriculture and give bacteria fewer opportunities to mutate and beat our drugs.

The drug and ag lobbies will holler that antibiotics are essential to modern agriculture. However...

The experience of farmers in the European Union, where dosing animals with sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics was banned in 1998, suggests otherwise. Denmark is the world's largest pork exporting country, and most of its hogs are raised in large confined operations much like those used by the U.S. pork industry. In that country, the overall use of antibiotics fell by 37 percent between 1994 and 2009, according to a study by Denmark's National Food Institute. Correspondingly, levels of resistant bacteria in animals and people plummeted, but production levels of meat either stayed the same or increased: The average daily weight gain per pig was actually higher in 2008 than in 1992 when antibiotics were routinely administered [Barry Estabrook, "You Want Superbugs with That?", 2011.05.27].

Dang. And here I was hoping an antibiotics ban would help get rid of big polluting feedlots. But Denmark shows that restricting antibiotic use won't put big livestock operators out of business. We can find other ways to address feedlot pollution. For now, I'll settle for stopping a plague of bacon-flavored superbugs.

How about you, Congresswoman Noem? Will you support an agriculture and public-health bill written by the only microbiologist in Congress?


  1. RGoeman 2011.05.29

    Cory, the larger threat may be the use of growth hormones and other hormones in our livestock and dairy cattle to promote growth and production. The first thing they told my wife when she was diagnosed with cancer was to dramatically reduce red meat and milk because of the affect growth hormones have on women and cancer in general. I asked why this isn't being promoted to the general public and they just looked at me. Obviously, the multi-million dollar marketing machines of Beef, Milk and other products is difficult to get in front of. They did say that eating range fed organic meat including red and white meats and organic milk or soy milk was a better choice for avoiding cancer. I'm guessing we know what causes cancer, but we can't cure it without going back to a caveman diet before chemicals and synthetic hormones.

  2. larry kurtz 2011.05.29

    "Our Children At Risk :The 5 Worst Environmental Threats To Their Health," NRDC.

  3. Kyle Cronin 2011.05.29

    Has anyone considered that the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is not due to greedy farmers trying to prevent disease in their herds, but perhaps lack of education on particular uses for particular medications? I'm from an ag background (but have moved on), and it's clear to see that there is little education on the use of prescription drugs in agriculture, aside from a few lines on the bottle's label.

  4. Chris S. 2011.05.29

    It should be basic common sense: Only use antibiotics if you really need to. Otherwise, recreational antibiotic use just breeds resistant bacteria. Same goes for gratuitous use of antibiotic soaps. People think they're being super-clean or whatever, when all you really need to do is wash your hands thoroughly. Problem solved without breeding nasty super-bacteria.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.05.29

    I'm with you, Chris: keep those anti-bacterial soaps away.

    Kyle, in addition to Chris's common sense, might farmers need as much education about antibiotics as about alternative methods (like the Danes are apparently using) to prevent infection among their animals?

  6. Kyle Cronin 2011.05.29

    A little education never hurt anyone, but there is the 'lead a horse to water' situation when it comes to alternative methods, especially when economics, and not doing the right thing, are the deciding factors. Take for example the deadly chicken nasty infection (an infection I've made up for the sake of example but I'm sure has a realistic counter part). The CNI, when introduced to a chicken flock spreads rapidly and is fatal in 20% of those infected because massive infections tend to not be completely diagnosed until a few are too late. Farmer Fred knows if his chicken feed has a small amount of antibiotics mixed in with it, it's going to be a fairly broad sword in the fight to prevent wide spread infections in his flock.
    So, what is the right thing to do? Is Farmer Fred going to:
    A: "do the right thing", use unmedicated feed, and risk disease spreading
    B: buy chicken feed that is medicated?
    This scenario doesn't propose to solve the problem by any means, but it does give a perspective on why we have the issue in the first place. To outsiders, the common sense perspective is to give no medication until it's needed, but to those signing the checks (or using online bill pay nowadays), it's a cheap insurance plan.

  7. mike 2011.05.30

    I'm totally with Cory on this issue.

  8. Lauri 2011.05.30

    I think before everyone attacks farmers for use of antibiotics in livestock, we maybe need to look at abuse of antibiotics in humans, and how they have been overprescribed and misused, i think that contributes more to resistance than what farmers do. just my opinion, no research to back it up, other than knowing many livestock producers.

  9. Charlie Johnson 2011.05.30

    When you crowd livestock into increasing concentrated numbers, antibiotics become a matter of necessity not choice. As Rod mentioned the use of hormones is on the rise also. Unfortunately most of our milk and meat in this country is raised on the twin pillars of modern livestock rearing-hormones and antibiotics.

  10. mike 2011.05.30

    I was on vacation to the Florida Keys a few years ago with some neighbors who run a feedlot and was talking to some people outside of the US and the lady thought they were refering to a gulag when they were describing what they did for a living.

    We have lost a lot of kindness by the way we raise our animals in the US. It's all about the dollar signs and not the animals health.

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.05.30

    But Lauri, I'd still contend that when 80% of the antibiotics are going to animals and 20% are going to people, starting with the people is starting with the small piece of the pie. Sure, we need to take action like the Norwegian hospitals have, but that should not delay us from addressing the single biggest user of antibiotics, the food animal industry.

  12. Chris S. 2011.05.30

    Re: addressing the human side of the issue, in addition to not gratuitously using antibacterial soaps, I also try to make sure the doctor doesn't prescribe me antibiotics I don't need. I have to take his word if he says I need certain medication, but I make sure he knows that I don't want him to prescribe antibiotics if they're not going to do me any good (such as for a viral infection, for instance). I think doctors get a lot of pressure from people to prescribe antibiotics even when they're unnecessary and ineffective, just because people feel they're "doing something."

  13. joelie hicks 2011.05.30

    Years ago there was an article in the Minneapolis Tribune called something like 'Tracing an illness to a SD Farm'. They did not mention the name of the place.
    The gist of the story was that about a dozen people in Mpls became horribly ill with the same strain of (i think) e coli. They did not eat at the same place, live in the same area, had no connection with one another. The CDC became involved, it read as well as any detective story. Ultimately, it was discovered that some geese landed in a field by a feedlot, they must have been carrying an illness. The cattle in said feedlot were given antibiotic sprinkled in their feed. They were sold before they manifested any illness, but the bacteria was proliferating in their gut. They were turned into hamburger which ended up in the meat departments of various stores in Mpls. The people who became ill all were taking an antibiotic, only one had a scrip, the rest just used some in the cupboard. They used just enough to proliferate the bad bacteria. The bottom line of the cautionary tale is that both man and beast had a hand in this devastating outbreak.

  14. K Ericsson 2011.05.31

    If you'd like, here's a link to an article that was published in The New York Times Magazine:

    This article offers good insight into how a corn-based diet can affect cattle health and the need for antibiotics. Those big livestock operators may not be put out of business by an antibiotics ban, but restrictions on the animals' diets could. With diet restrictions, we could replace corn fields with grazing pasture and farmland to grow real food for human consumption!

  15. Troy Jones 2011.05.31


    I'm with you Cory. Anti-biotic use for prevention whether it be in our hand soap or injecting into animals is not in the best interest of our health.

    But, I think feedlots are critical to cheap and affordable food for our nation. Don't thow the baby out with the bathwater.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.05.31

    And Troy, the Danish example appears to show that reducing non-therapeutic antibiotic use need not require abandoning the feedlot model. I'm still with Kristen and would prefer less corn and more grass in my beef, but we can tackle the antibiotics issue independently from that debate.

Comments are closed.