Myths & Facts about Animal Antibiotics in Food Production

Scientific experts share their knowledge and experience to de-bunk common myths about antibiotic resistance and food animal production.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a new report, “Antibiotic Resistance Threats in The United States, 2013,” which underlines the serious threat that antibiotic resistance presents to human health in the 21st century. Antibiotic resistance is gaining attention in the media, and there is increasing misinformation about the use of antibiotics in food production.  To help address some of the misinformation surrounding antibiotics in food production and antibiotic resistance, IFIC Foundation asked some of our most knowledgeable experts in animal and veterinary sciences, food animal production and human health to share their knowledge and experience.

Myth #1:
Advocates report that "Eighty percent of antibiotics sold are used for meat-producing animals.”

The fact is . . . The antibiotics that MDs and veterinarians use to treat humans and animals are relatively different.

“The phrase “80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in animals” does not represent the true issue.  The numbers I use — and these are facts that I can support — are as follows: 40 percent of all antibiotics used in animals are called ionophores, which have never been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in human medicine, so immediately we remove 40 percent from the discussion because their use in animals has no impact on human health. Other drugs which account for 42 percent are “extremely poor” third or fourth choices for treatment of Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  Of the remaining 18 percent, only 0.3 percent is comprised of veterinary antibiotics that come from classes of antibiotics that are also used in human medicine. These veterinary antiobiotics are used only for the treatment of animal disease, not for preventing disease or promoting growth in animals.  Bottom line:  The FDA has done a very good job or protecting our health by limiting their use.”

Source: Dr. Richard Raymond at Report finds advance in animal ag. disputes antibotics issue

Myth #2:
"Organic producers never use antibiotics."

The fact is . . . 

“When antibiotics are deemed medically necessary to treat a sick animal, farmers and ranchers, both ‘conventional’ and ‘organic,’ have an ethical responsibility to treat them. To balance their responsibility to the animal's health and the requirements of organic labeling, most organic producers either market treated animals as conventionally raised or sell them to a producer who is not in the organic or similar program.  Regardless, milk and meat from animals that receive antibiotic therapy can only be marketed after the appropriate FDA withdrawal period has elapsed to ensure that the antibiotic has sufficiently cleared the animal’s system, but even then, the animals cannot be labeled as organic.”

Will Gilmer, dairy farmer, Gilmer Dairy Farm, Alabama, USA

Myth #3:
"Antibiotics in livestock are making humans more resistant to antibiotics."

The fact is . . .

“Because of oversight by the FDA, and using best available science, there is actually very little overlap between antibiotics frequently used in animal health and in human health; rather, use of antibiotics by humans is the main culprit for the resistant bacteria confronting patients and human health practitioners today. The CDC confirmed this in its recent report and noted that50 percent of antibiotics prescribed for use in human health are inappropriate.”

Richard Raymond, MD, former Undersecretary for Food Safety, US Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Myth #4:
“The use of antibiotics in livestock is making our food less safe.”

It’s just not that simple. For example, some studies suggest that if we removed the use of antibiotics from all animals, we may have less safe food due to the fact that sick animals would be entering the food supply, carrying an increased level of bacteria with them. We simply don’t want sick animals entering the food supply; therefore, FDA has been weighing the benefits with the risks of using antimicrobials in the food supply for many years to strike the right balance.

The fact remains that. . . harmful bacteria may be found on raw meat products, kitchen surfaces, knives and other utensils – right in your kitchen.

“Whether the harmful bacteria such as Salmonella that are sometimes found in raw meat are resistant to antibiotics or not, does not affect their sensitivity to heat and sanitizers that are used to make meat safe.  Hence, following the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recommended meat and poultry products' safe handling practices will reduce the risk of infection.”

Michael Doyle, PhD, Regents Professor of Food Microbiology and Director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia


Myth #5:
“Antibiotics are only used because the conditions in tightly confined feeding operations are so terrible.”

The fact is . . . farm animals would crowd together even if they had a wide open field or barn because it is their nature to do so. And, even in large spaces, animals still can and do contract illnesses requiring treatment.

“The judicious use of antimicrobials in food animals keeps them healthy, and healthy animals mean healthy food products for humans.  Judicious use means that veterinarians and producers use good judgment to decide when and how an antimicrobial is to be used to maximize public and animal health benefits while minimizing risks.

Strategic use of antibiotics for disease prevention (where disease is predicted, but may not yet have been documented) and control (where disease is present in a portion of the herd or flock and will likely spread) is essential for animal health and welfare.”
Katherine Waters, DVM, MPH, University of Minnesota


Myth #6:
"Buying organic and antibiotic-free is better for me and my family."

The fact is . . . “There is no scientific evidence to suggest a difference in nutritional content or bacterial safety between the two.  For my patients, it’s not always a realistic possibility due to access and cost.  I recommend to many of my patients to purchase nutritious food that they can afford.

Overall, I tend to see more problems with consumers mishandling food after it is purchased.  Consumers should always practice safe food handling practices, whether organic or conventionally produced.  Clean, Separate, Cook (use a meat thermometer to ensure the meat is cooked to a safe internal temperature) and Chill.”

Keith Ayoob, RD, EdD, FADA – Associate Clinical Professor, Pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine


For more information, visit the IFIC Foundation Animal Agriculture Resource Page and US Farmers and Ranchers Food Source: Antibiotics.