Can Antibiotics Given to Farm Animals Really Make Us Sick?

By: Tony Flood Date: 2/10/10

Last night, CBS Evening News with Katie Couric aired the first of a two-part TV segment on the use of antibiotics in farm animals, which investigated a suspected link between farm workers' exposure to animals treated with antibiotics and the potential development of a bacterial infection that could be resistant to antibiotics used to treat infections in humans. 

The segment stated that a deadly bacterial infection called methicillin resistant staph, or MRSA, infected farm workers tending to livestock and poultry that have been treated with animal antibiotics used to promote growth and prevent disease, and that they subsequently experienced problems finding antibiotics that could effectively fight the infection.  

The interviews and "hidden camera" coverage implied that human and animal antibiotics are "overused", and called for their use to be stopped. They also implied that the use of animal antibiotics on factory farms is widespread, although one doctor of veterinary medicine who was interviewed for the segment said that the majority of farmers use them properly. Finally, they claimed that there is not enough monitoring of the use of these antibiotics on farms. 

However, what many people don't know is that there has been a long use of animal antibiotics in the U.S. Veterinarians and farmers have given antibiotics to farm animals (primarily poultry, pigs, and cattle) for more than 50 years to treat or prevent animal diseases that would contaminate our food if not treated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for the ensuring the safety of all drugs, including antibiotics for food animals. As part of that responsibility, the FDA must assess drugs specifically for the risk of developing[LM1]  resistant bacteria that could enter the food supply or be transmitted directly to people before they are approved.

In addition, farmers are required to implement a specified withdrawal time for each drug, determined by FDA, to allow the antibiotics to clear an animal's system before its meat or milk enters the food supply. For more on the use of animal antibiotics to improve food safety, see FDA's Judicious Use Video, "Safeguarding America's Health". 

Bill Sischo, DVM, MPVM, PhD, a doctor of veterinary medicine at Washington State University's School for Global Animal Health, states, "Antibiotics as used in veterinary medicine, whether for your pet or in animal agriculture, are one of the ways that we keep animals healthy. A healthy farm animal is key to providing healthy and safe food." 

So, will stopping the use of animal antibiotics on farms or avoiding food from animals treated with antibiotics really remove the risk of coming into contact with resistant bacteria?  

According to a 2006 report by a panel of experts gathered by the Institute of Food Technologists, no one strategy, even eliminating antibiotic use on farms, will reduce or remove the risk of resistant bacteria in food. The Panel instead recommends a multi-pronged approach, including strengthening risk assessments to guide FDA's approval of antibiotics, responsible use of antibiotics on the farm, continued emphasis of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) interventions throughout the food chain, and focused research for better understanding of resistant bacteria.

 So what can you do to decrease your risk of developing resistant bacteria? Here are a few practical tips: 

o        Cook food thoroughly (use a thermometer to check that the food is cooked to the proper temperature)

o        Follow basic safe food handling tips and kitchen cleaning practices to reduce the risk of exposure to bacteria that could lead to food borne illness.

o        Follow ALL instructions given by your physician and as described on the label of prescription medications.

o        Do not ask your physician, veterinarian, or other health care professional for antibiotics for yourself, your relatives, pet, or other animals in your care. These health care professionals will responsibly prescribe antibiotics based on need.

o        Only take antibiotics for a bacterial infection. Antibiotics are ineffective for viral infections such as the common cold or a stomach virus, and added exposure to antibiotics will decrease their effectiveness for when you really do need them.

o        Wash your hands frequently and follow all the appropriate hand washing and drying guidelines.

o        Get plenty of rest and exercise for 30 minutes per day, five days per week, and eat a balanced, nutrient-rich diet to keep your immunity up. 

For more information, view our Q&A on animal antibiotics, which answers common questions regarding use, safety and regulation of animal antibiotics, as well as the concept of antibiotic resistance.

Update 2/12/10 : For another great scientific perspective on the CBS News animal antibiotic segment, check out this post from former USDA Deputy Undersecretary Food Safety Dr. H. Scott Hurd.