by Marion Nestle
Dec 13 2010

FDA says 29 million pounds of antibiotics used in food animals last year

I was interested to read FoodSafetyNews this morning and learn about the FDA’s new count of the number and pounds of antibiotics used to promote the growth of farm animals used as food.

Because this is the first time the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine has produced such a count, it is not possible to say whether the numbers are going up or down.  But the agency is now requiring meat producers to report on antibiotic use so we now have a baseline for measuring progress.

The FDA has been concerned about the use and misuse of animal antibiotics for some time now, so much so that in June it issued guidance on The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals.

In the Federal Register notice announcing the guidance, the FDA explains:

Misuse and overuse of antimicrobial drugs creates selective evolutionary pressure that enables antimicrobial resistant bacteria to increase in numbers more rapidly than antimicrobial susceptible bacteria and thus increases the opportunity for
individuals to become infected by resistant bacteria. Because antimicrobial drug use contributes to the emergence of drug resistant organisms, these important drugs must be used judiciously in both animal and human medicine to slow the development of resistance. Using these drugs judiciously means that unnecessary or inappropriate use should be avoided….

In regard to the use of antimicrobial drugs in animals, concerns have been raised by the public and components of the scientific and public health communities that a significant contributing factor to antimicrobial resistance is the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in foodproducing animals for production or growth-enhancing purposes.

The overuse of antibiotics in farm animal production was a key focus of the 2009 report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Our conclusion: the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is an enormous risk to public health and should be stopped.

The FDA report may be short and issued without comment, but it is a sign that the FDA is taking steps to address this serious public health problem.

  • Anthro

    This is good news, but there is a (sort of) related issue that I’d like to bring up:

    Whole Foods, the Co-ops (and other “natural” food brands) continue to trumped their poultry products as FREE OF ANTIBIOTICS*–there’s always the asterisk–which (in the tiniest possible print) points out that federal regulations prohibit antibiotic use in poultry. Yet, the producers (and the stores) continue to charge a premium for this purported “advantage”!

    Whenever I bring this up at these stores, I receive only blank stares as if I am besmirching their effort to offer wholesome products!

    Does this annoy anyone else? I don’t mind paying more to get a chicken that was allowed to run around outdoors (or even indoors), but why should I pay more to read in the fine print that the law is already preventing antibiotic use in poultry? I’m not certain, but I think this applies to hormone use as well–don’t have a label in front of me.

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  • Michael Bulger


    I’ve seen poultry products with this type of label. It always irks me, but for a different reason.

    When I am at the store and read a label with a disclaimer that says, “Use of antibiotics in poultry production is prohibited in the US,” I get so confused. In fact it is not prohibited.

    Poultry was the first livestock in which an antibiotic (tetracycline) byproduct was discovered to promote growth. The use of subtherapeutic doses in feed is still permitted to the best of my knowledge.

    In actuality, it is hormones that are prohibited in US poultry production. These companies have their labels wrong. It always drives me batty, and I’ve gone straight home and “Googled” the matter several times.

    If I have this wrong and antibiotics are not permitted, I would love someone to provide a link. Otherwise, I’ll have to continue to roll my eyes at these companies and their mixed-up disclaimer.

  • Brooke

    Two comments – first to the original post: The data collected is from the drug manufacturers, not meat producers. Therefore, this is the amount of drug marketed, not necessarily used on animals. Not a huge issue, but worth pointing out for future reference.

    Second, antibiotics are used in poultry. The asterisk to which the poster refers to is for steroids or hormones which are NOT used in poultry as per federal regulation as the post points out. A very important distinction.

  • I’d be interested in knowing what % is used for animals versus humans. This has always been a “murky” percentage. I have heard the figure 70%, however, no one seems to know for sure.

    By the way, here’s the fascinating story (video) about the origins of antibiotics in our food system

  • Cathy Richards

    It is certainly ironic that our hospitals serve meat/poultry/fish produced using antibiotics for faster growth and cheaper product, and then our hospitals suffer terrific costs due to antibiotic resistant diseases and infections.

    We pay so little for our food, compared to our income, than we did 100 years ago. And yet we pay a great price for our cheap food.

    One of my favourite Michael Pollan quotes – more related to obesity than antibiotics but it still works:
    “The industrial food chain does produce food more cheaply, …but…you’re paying …for it in public health costs.
    (S)ubsidies make unhealthy food cheaper than healthy food, and so our country is facing an obesity epidemic…The phrase I use is ‘the high cost of cheap food.’ “

  • Wow, great discussions. Where to begin with all this…

    As far as the whole notion with the asterik and chicken claiming to be “free range”… it also makes me wonder about the “organic” label. Especially the USDA organic label. I’ve seen so many different products with the organic label slapped on that it’s starting to wear thin. My mother will not buy a single item unless it’s organic (a few exceptions of course). Heck, even some smart business people decided to create a brand just called “Organics” to get people thinking everything they have is organic.

    I know this is a slight tangent but makes one wonder about the validity of claims for our foods.

    And as far as the antibiotics are concerned… that number is probably much higher than being reported (much like the debt of America)

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