Antibiotic Use

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Let’s Talk About: Antibiotic Use

Farmers know that quality food begins with quality care for their animals. This is why farmers use antibiotics strategically and under the guidance of their veterinarians. Farmers rely on several other factors besides antibiotics to keep their herds healthy. These include the farmer’s own personal care for the animals, providing the animals with proper housing and nutrition, and providing veterinarian care for emergencies or to administer preventive vaccinations. Good animal welfare is dependent on the use of antibiotics. “Banning or severely restricting the use of antimicrobials in animals may negatively impact the veterinarian’s ability to protect animal health and prevent suffering from disease.”[i] In combination with the list above, responsible antibiotic use in farm animal production ensures that the safest food supply possible ends up in our grocery stores and on our tables.

Farm Bureau Policy

The American Farm Bureau Federation opposes “restricting the use of antibiotics…[and] has serious concerns about the effects of removing important antibiotics and classes of antibiotics from the market.” Instead, the AFBF supports “sound science as the basis for decision-making and policy development regarding antibiotics/antimicrobials used in food animal production.”[ii]


Farmers must eliminate the use of antibiotics during a withdrawal period prior to harvesting an animal. This withdrawal period is mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) for each drug approved for use. The withdrawal period ensures the safety for meat and animal products that enter the food chain.[iii]

The FDA does not approve the use of antibiotics until they undergo a vigorous review for impact on animals, humans, and the environment. The FDA approval process ensures that food products from animals treated with antibiotics are safe.

In 1996, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (“NARMS”) was formed as a collaborative effort of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”). “In 2011, NARMS found that 85% of Salmonella isolated from humans had no resistance to any of the antibiotics tested, up from an average of 80% in previous years.” Additionally, “Multi-drug resistance among human, slaughtered chicken and slaughtered swine Salmonella isolates was the lowest since testing began. [iv]

Farm organizations also have procedures and programs in place to help farmers use antibiotics safely. For example, the Pork Quality Assurance Plus program, which emphasizes judicious and strategic use of antibiotics, has been in place since 1989.[v]

Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotic resistant bacteria develop from many factors including human use of antibiotics and routine use of disinfectants like antibacterial soap. John Clifford, USDA’s department chief veterinarian “believes that it is likely that the use of antimicrobials in animal agriculture does lead to some cases of antimicrobial resistance among humans and in animals themselves.”[vi]

However, “U.S. government studies indicated that livestock uses account for only about 10% of the problem with resistant bacteria and that misuse in human patients is the leading cause of antibiotic resistance.”[vii] According to the CDC, approximately 50% of antibiotics prescribed in hospitals are unneeded or prescribed inappropriately.[viii]

Antibiotic Use

Currently, the FDA regulates antibiotic use for humans and animals. Food animals have four regulated categories of antibiotic use; disease treatment for animals that are sick, disease control for a group of animals when some of the animals are sick, disease prevention for a group of healthy animals that are at risk of becoming sick and growth promotion or increased feed efficiency in a herd or flock of animals to promote weight gain.[ix]

Growth Promotants

Growth promotion antibiotics are administered at low doses. The antibiotics can suppress subclinical infections caused by intestinal bacteria. The healthier animal gut can “more efficiently absorb nutrients, thus allowing an animal to gain weight faster with less feed.”[x] According to the University of Minnesota Extension Service, the use of growth promotants increase U.S. beef production by 700 million pounds annually while saving 6 billion pounds of feed.[xi] Relatively little antibiotics are administered to promote growth; most are given to farm animals to prevent or treat illness. Each ton of animal feed contains just 4 to 25 grams of antibiotics. Only 13% of all antibiotics in animal feed are used for growth promotion.[xii]

One-third of all antibiotics used in livestock production are ionophores.[xiii] Ionophores “have no use in human medicine and do not have any link or possible effect on antimicrobial resistance to therapeutic antibiotics in either people or food animals.”[xiv] Ionophore use offers substantial benefits. The benefits include: modification of ruminant microflora, decreased ruminant methane production, increased dry matter digestibility in ruminants, and prevention of coccidiosis in ruminants and poultry.[xv]

Veterinarian Feed Directive

In December 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released #213 Guidance for Industry. The document outlines judicious use of antibiotics in livestock. By December 2016, Guidance #213 will be fully implemented making it illegal to use medically important antibiotics for production (growth promotion) uses. Additionally, farmers will need veterinarian authorization to use the antibiotics for the prevention, control or treatment of a specifically identified disease.[xvi]

The Danish Experience

Denmark banned the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in 1998. Research conducted by the World Health Organization (“WHO”) in 2002 showed that the ban did not have a significant positive impact on resistant diseases in humans.[xvii]

In fact, resistant rates in human Salmonella cases have increased, and Denmark experienced its largest outbreak of methicillin-resistant Staph aureus (MRSA) in its history. Denmark has also seen the largest increase in human MRSA cases since it banned antibiotic growth promotion in animal agriculture.[xviii]The same WHO report also showed an increase in the incidence of diarrhea in pigs and an almost 25% increase in mortality rate after the ban was implemented.[xix]

According to Gregory Conko, Director of Food and Drug Policy for the Enterprise Institute (“CEI”), “After the U.K., Denmark, and then the entire European Union banned antibiotic use for growth promotion, the incidence of many resistant bacteria increased, not decreased. Those bans have increased the cost of raising animals and made food more expensive, but they’ve done absolutely nothing to improve public health.”[xx]

[i] Animal Health Institute. “Antibiotics in Livestock: Frequently Asked Questions.” Web. 6 July 2015.

[ii] American Farm Bureau Federation. “Preserving Antibiotics Access”. June 2015. Web. 2 July 2015.

[iii] National Pork Board. (2010). Antibiotic use in pork production. Frequently asked questions.

[iv] National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System for Enteric Bacteria. “NARMS 2011 Executive Report Summary.” 2011. Web. 6 July 2015.

[v] National Pork Producers Council.

[vi] Brasher, Philip. 14 July 2010. “USDA: animal drug use ‘likely’ linked to human problems. DeMoines Register Blog.”

[vii] Hall, Christine. 30 August 2010. “FDA Warned Against Hazards of Curtailing Antibiotic Use in Livestock. Growth Promotion Limits Could Do More harm Than Good.” Web.

[viii] CDC. “Get Smart for Healthcare.” 5 May 2015. Web. 6 July 2015.

[ix] National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System. “Antibiotic Use in Food-Producing Animals.”  4 September 2014. Web. 6 July 2015.

[x] Animal Health Institute. “Antibiotics in Livestock: Frequently Asked Questions.” Web. 6 July 2015.

[xi]National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “Growth Promotant Use in Cattle Production.” October 2007. Web. 6 July 2015.

[xii] Animal Health Institute.

[xiii] McEwen, Scott and Fedorka-Cray, Paula J. “Antimicrobial Use and Resistance in Animals.” Oxford Journals. Web. 2013.

[xiv]Reinhardt, Christopher D.. “Antimicrobial Feed Additives.” The Merck Veterinary Manual. December 2013. Web.7 July 2015.

[xv]Reinhardt, Christopher D.. “Antimicrobial Feed Additives.” The Merck Veterinary Manual. December 2013. Web.7 July 2015.

[xvi] FDA. “FACT SHEET: Veterinary Feed Directive Final Rule and Next Steps.” 2 June 2015. Web. 7 July 2015.

[xvii] World Health Organization. “Impacts of antimicrobial growth promoter termination I Denmark.” November 2002.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Hall, Christine. “FDA Warned Against Hazards of Curtailing Antibiotic use in Livestock. Growth Promotion Limits Could Do More Harm Than Good.” 30 August 2010. Web.

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