Antibiotics and Livestock

Antibiotics and Livestock: The Background

[Editor note: Part one of a two part series. Part two will appear in November 2013: Antibiotics and Livestock: Pros and Cons]

Last month, I wrote about MRSA and my personal experience: I am currently on day 50 of antibiotics. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) can be antibiotic resistant and is famously known for having come about through overuse/over prescription of antibiotics and through development in hospital environments. It has been reported that 70 – 80 percent of antibiotics used here in the USA are used on farm animals. I was surprised by this high percentage of antibiotics being used on our livestock. Is there a correlation to the antibiotics used in raising our animals for food or livestock that we eat and the emergence of antibiotic resistant superbugs?

In the past decade or two, treating doctors have been more vigilant to not over prescribe antibiotics so as not to create stronger and drug resistant bacteria.  How many of you have ever gone to the doctor and feel underserved if you were not given a prescription for antibiotics when you don’t feel well with flu symptons or are suffering from a bad cold? Antibiotics kill bacterial infection, not viral infections. When antibiotics are overused, they do kill the bacteria, but because bacteria evolve, the stronger bacteria survive and multiply creating bacteria that are resistant to antibiotic treatment.

In contrast, the livestock industry has been steadily increasing the amount of antibiotics administered to our livestock and using 80 percent of antibiotics used here in the USA translates to about 30 million pounds of antibiotics given in 2011 versus 7.7 million pounds of antibiotics used for human consumption in the same year. The antibiotics given to livestock are not used to heal them; they have been given to prevent illness in their cramped and unsanitary living conditions and also to facilitate faster growth and weight gain.

In September, 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report, “CDC’s Work to Prevent Antibiotic Resistance in Food” where they estimate ‘that in the United States, more than two million people are sickened every year with antibiotic-resistant infections, with at least 23,000 dying as a result.  The CDC states that the most important action to slow down antibiotic resistant infections is the change the way antibiotics are used. The CDC continues to in their report that 50 percent of all the antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed. And that antibiotics used in food animals to prevent, control, and treat disease, and to promote the growth of food producing animals is not necessary, and the practice should be phased out with the goal to slow down the spread of resistant bacteria.

The CDC reports that antibiotic-resistant infections outside hospital settings were rare until recently. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests modern farming can also be a major source of MRSA infections. Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health discovered that people living near large pig farms were significantly at risk for being diagnosed with MRSA. The CDC reports that the use of antibiotics “contributes to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food-producing animals. Resistant bacteria in food-producing animals are of particular concern because these animals serve as carriers. Resistant bacteria can contaminate the foods that come from those animals, and people who consume these foods can develop antibiotic-resistant infections. Antibiotics must be used judiciously in humans and animals because both uses contribute to not only the emergence, but also the persistence and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

Every year, millions of people in the US get sick with foodborne and gastrointestinal infections. Antibiotics are lifesaving in the severe cases. To prevent antibiotic resistance in food, the CDC is working closely with state and local health departments as well as with the FDA – which regulate antibiotics and the USDA which regulates our meat, poultry and eggs.

“In 1996, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) was established as a collaboration agency among CDC, FDA, USDA, and state and local public health departments. This national public health surveillance system tracks antibiotic resistance among Salmonella, Campylobacter, and other bacteria transmitted commonly through food. NARMS tests bacteria from humans (CDC), retail meats (FDA), and food-producing animals (USDA) in the United States. The primary objectives of the NARMS program are to:

  • Monitor trends in antibiotic resistance among enteric bacteria from humans, retail meats, and food-producing animals.
  • Disseminate information on antibiotic resistance to promote interventions that reduce antibiotic resistance among foodborne bacteria.
  • Conduct research to better understand the emergence, persistence, and spread of antibiotic resistance.
  • Provide data that assist the FDA in making decisions about approving safe and effective antibiotic drugs for animals.
  • As it stands right now, antibiotic administration is voluntary as per the FDA guidelines in regards to the livestock industry.

Antibiotics and Livestock: Pros and Cons

[Editor note: Part two of a two part series will appear in the November 2013 issue. Both parts can be found on]

The CDC confirms that worldwide, scientists are finding strong evidence that antibiotic use in animals can create antibiotic resistant bacteria and are transmitted to humans through the food supply or as a carrier to humans. They recommend that antibiotics be given under veterinary supervision.

The FDA says in their Industry Guide “Guidance for Industry: The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial drugs in Food-Producing Animals” which also states, that misuse and overuse of antibiotics can increase antimicrobial resistant bacteria to increase in numbers and allow more people to get infected by resistant bacteria. They suggest that antibiotics should be used judiciously in both animal and human medicine to slow the development of resistance. Efforts have been made to promote the judicious use of these drugs in humans. They explain that “using these drugs judiciously means that unnecessary or inappropriate use should be avoided. The focus of this document is on the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals.”

The FDA recommends voluntary [the emphasis is the author’s] adoption of practices to begin phasing out unnecessary use of antibiotics which includes veterinary supervision.

I spoke with Mark McCully, the Vice President of Production from Certified Angus Beef. He placed in perspective the position of many U.S. farmers and ranchers who are producing the safest food supply in the world. McCully confirmed that “antibiotics are given to livestock for three reasons – to treat sick animals, to prevent sickness, or to promote efficient growth by helping the animal digest and absorb nutrients.”

He emphasized that the antibiotics given to our livestock are monitored. “First, the FDA approves the use of all animal drugs after intense testing and confirming animal safety and human food safety. Then licensed veterinarians control their prescription and administration. And finally, FDA and USDA experts monitor products for any possible residue.” I was happily surprised when he continued by stating the facts that “It is important to know that when antibiotics are used, withdrawal times are strictly followed by farmers and ranchers. A withdrawal time is the interval after the antibiotic is given before that animal or products from that animal (milk) can be sent to market. This step ensures it has cleared the animal’s system.”

He added, “It’s also important to remember that there is a difference between antibiotic resistance and antibiotic residue. Antibiotic resistance is a highly complicated topic that experts around the world have been studying for years.”

When I asked McCully for a response to the CDC report we reported in part one, he answered, “Farmers and ranchers are judicious and responsible with antibiotics knowing that the meat and milk they raise will be served to your family and their own. They work to provide the safest food supply while providing excellent care for their animals. Continuous improvement in animal nutrition, health programs and vaccinations are proactive tools that help prevent illness and limit the need for antibiotic use.”

There are farmers and ranchers in the natural and organic arena who cull the sick animals that have needed antibiotic treatments from the herd and sell them to farms that do not have strict antibiotic-free standards. The animal gets the treatment it needs and is still legal to sell for food, but that farmer does not want to get into the grays areas of the conversation about what is allowed or not allowed and has a zero tolerance for their herds regarding antibiotics.

I question what would happen if antibiotics were not given to livestock? In Europe, antibiotics to promote growth have been banned since 2006. Denmark has been very proactive to eliminate antibiotics in animal production since the 1990’s … they banned not only the antibiotics to facilitate faster growth, but also eliminated most disease prevention antibiotics. The results are possible by weaning the animals when they are older. Rise in costs were minimal at 1 percent in Denmark as a result.

Our responsibility in Safe Food Handling is to always be vigilant in regards with raw meat products that we wash our hands, avoid cross contamination and cook meats to proper internal cooking temperatures.

As a consumer, my alternative suggestions to the livestock industry using antibiotics would be to consider developing and administrating vaccines to livestock as a prevention method versus antibiotics. Consider using antibiotics only to heal sick animals versus animal growth. Stop administrating low dosage of antibiotics to livestock which can promote growth of stronger drug resistant bacteria. Provide larger spaces for less livestock so they are not so on top of each other and in addition provide more humane conditions besides the obvious more sanitary conditions.

About the Author

Juliet Bodinetz is executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training Solutions and has over 30 years industry and training experience. She and her team of instructors specialize in food safety, alcohol training and ServSafe training in English or in Spanish and writing HACCP Plans in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. area., or 443-838-7561. For latest food safety tips: Become a fan on Facebook or Twitter: @BHTS

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