Antibiotics as growth-promotants in livestock: more meat at what cost?



Livestock are often fed antibiotics to improve the rate of weight gain and prophylactically prevent disease.

Livestock are often fed antibiotics to improve the rate of weight gain and prophylactically prevent disease.



An increase in antibiotic resistant bacterial infections seen in recent decades has lead many scientists and medical professionals to question how our current antibiotic practices are influencing the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Many citizens, scientists and activists, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, have suggested that antibiotic resistance has in part arisen due to the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in production animals.  The widespread practice of feeding livestock low-doses of antibiotics at various points of growth and confinement is used for growth promotion and prophylactic treatment of diseases that are common in the close-quarters of confined animal feed operations.  In these situations, microbes have prolonged exposure to antibiotics at low levels, allowing the selection of populations of antibiotic-resistant bacteria while non-resistant bacteria die-off.  The persistence of antibiotics in animal manures has also led to concerns that antibiotics may be widely distributed in the environment, as antibiotics administered to livestock can pass unchanged into the manure and persist within the environment.  This distribution with the manure as fertilizer creates the opportunity for the emergence of antibiotic resistance in the environment. In recognition of these concerns, the Preserving Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act was sponsored to attempt to decrease the usage of antibiotics in veterinary medicine, where non-therapeutic use is practiced.  The bill was proposed by Congresswoman Lousie Slaughter in March of 2009.


The European Union currently bans the use of six classes of antibiotics for use in animal feed, and Sweden has banned all growth promotant antibiotics since 1986, with Denmark following suit in the 1990’s.  However, Sweden and Denmark have witnessed “reports of similar, if not higher, rates of resistance in Europe, even where stricter rules were adopted,” North Carolina state Veterinarian and American Veterinary Medical Association member Steven Parr says.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) argues that inadequate enforcement of these bans has rendered them ineffective and that banning such non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics is necessary to safeguard the United States food supply.


2 Responses to “Antibiotics as growth-promotants in livestock: more meat at what cost?”

  1. healthcarereformusa Says:

    This is a critical issue impacting our health through the food we eat. The ever-evolving antibiotic-resistant bacteria pose a tremendous health problem. DNA “finger-printing” clearly confirms the events and the rapid dissemination of antibiotic strains. I found it interesting that antibiotics persist in animal manures so that antibiotics may be widely distributed in the environment. The implications are many. Deadly infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a critical matter. Additionally, the recent foodborne outbreaks and trends in human antibiotic allergies raise questions about links or associations. Yes, in the US we have many unenforceable laws restricting the use of antibiotics in food animals. To compound the problem, much of the US food supply originates in poor countries where the use of antibiotics as growth-promotants is a common practice for economic reasons. (Learning about these practices has made me more selective about the foods I eat.) Effectively inspecting domestic as well as imported foods is a daunting task. I am glad to learn about the bill proposed by Congresswoman Lousie Slaughter just this March. As well, the link to Dr Sharfstein’s FDA testimony attests to keeping this critical problem in the lime light. Thank you!

  2. phobrodine Says:

    I would second the argument’s posted in the blog and in healthcarereformusa’s response. I would add that at the very least, food labeling requirements are reformed to provide the consumer with a more distinct choice between meats that have come from livestock treated with antibiotics and traditionally raised animals. If, for example, the choice was as obvious as two entirely different colors used in the packaging, it would be a simpler decision for the consumer and would perhaps allow the market more room for self-determination. If antibiotics and additives are being used to ensure consistent high quality meats ultimately in order to save costs, farmers and vendors might find that there is greater public interest in traditionally raised meat to the point where people are willing to cover the differential in costs and foster a competition within the industry. Enhanced food labeling could also support any kind of longitudinal study designed to track the long-term effects of exposure to livestock products derived from animals enhanced by artificial additives.

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