Home >> What We Do >> Keep You Informed >> Legal Arena >>

Overuse of Antibiotics

The non-therapeutic use of antibiotics (or antimicrobials) by the agricultural industry, especially in large confinement farming facilities, to promote faster growth of animals kept as livestock and to keep epidemic diseases under control, has come at a terrible cost to human health and animal welfare. The proliferation of antibiotics in the animals’—and subsequently humans’ food supply —has caused resistance to many antibiotics used to treat infections and disease in people. Furthermore, the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, intended to prevent the outbreak of disease in overcrowded conditions, has allowed the farming industry to keep animals in filthy and appalling conditions to enhance their profits with less fear of disease epidemics.

According to a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “Because of the link between antibiotic use in food-producing animals and the occurrence of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, antibiotics should be used in food-producing animals only under veterinary oversight and only to manage and treat infectious diseases, not to promote growth.” However, the reality is that approximately 80% of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are sold not to treat sick people, but used in animals to produce meat and poultry.  Most often, these drugs are fed to healthy animals to make them grow faster and to stave off diseases when animals are kept in highly crowded and unsanitary conditions. The CDC has stated that when animals are given antibiotics for growth promotion or increased feed efficiency, long-term low-level exposure to these antibiotics has led to the proliferation of resistant bacteria. Every year, at least 2 million people in the U.S. contract serious infections with bacteria that are resistant to at least one of the antibiotics used to treat those infections, and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these antibiotic-resistant infections.

Despite this serious threat to human health, there is no government regulatory oversight to the antibiotics given to food animals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented a plan for pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily change their labels regarding drug uses in order to clarify the appropriate use of antibiotics. This action came in response to the CDC report cited above. The FDA said that it was working with the pharmaceutical industry on voluntary compliance because it was easier and faster than going through the regulatory process. In March 2014, the FDA reported that 25 of 26 pharmaceutical companies, representing 99.6 percent of total sales of these drugs in 2011, agreed to voluntarily phase out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in animals processed for meat.

Because voluntary compliance leaves a loophole in the guidelines which allow these companies to sell the same drugs to meat producers if they have the approval of a veterinarian, there is a fear that the result will be a relabeling of the drugs rather than an end to their use.  Furthermore, voluntary guidelines have not resulted in significant changes in industry practices in the past. Despite earlier voluntary guidelines to reduce the use of these antibiotics, an October 2014 report by the FDA showed a 16% increase in their use over a recent three-year period. The drug companies, which sell a large percentage of their antibiotics to the agricultural industry, have no incentive to encourage a reduction in the use of these drugs.

Federal legislation, such as the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act and Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act, is needed and has been introduced each session over the last few years but failed to pass. This legislation would:

  • Require manufacturers to submit evidence that new drugs are safe and necessary for a specific purpose;
  • Require manufacturers to submit evidence that drugs already in use are effective in treating a specific bacterial disease;
  • Require manufacturers to demonstrate that developing an antimicrobial resistance to the drug will not harm human health; and
  • Require drugs to be given only by a licensed veterinarian with a relationship with the animal being treated.

You can help by supporting legislative efforts to require meat and egg producers to stop using essential antibiotics for non-medical purposes. An end to nontherapeutic antibiotics will benefit human health while necessitating better living conditions for animals to keep them healthy. So long as humans eat meat, we owe it to the animals to ensure that their living conditions and how we treat them are the most humane they can be.