The Development of “Superbugs” through Meat Consumption


Would you eat antibiotics with each meal if you felt healthy? Of course not. But large agriculture companies supplement animal feed with sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics such as penicillin to promote growth; according to the Pew Commission, 70% of antibiotics produced in the U.S. are administered in animal feed.

Bacteria exposed to antibiotics can evolve into antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that cause difficult-to-treat infections. In humans, such infections result in $16 to $26 billion in additional medical costs annually due to additional hospitalizations and deaths mostly in infants and the elderly. Medical doctors are expected to judiciously use antibiotics, minimizing exposure of bacteria to these powerful drugs. However, farmers can buy antibiotics in bulk for their animal feed.

The FDA’s draft guidance, released in June, suggests limiting antibiotics to sick animals only, under the supervision of veterinarians. While agricultural companies such as Hormel Foods argue that antibiotics are necessary to prevent infections in animal herds and promote growth, the USDA recently admitted that this practice poses a health risk to humans. Scientific evidence suggests that antibiotic resistance in animal bacteria can be passed on to human bacteria, leading the CDC and the Union for concerned scientists to encourage the restrictions on antibiotic use.

As health professionals, we oppose indiscriminate use of antibiotics in animals and support regulations that restrict its use to only sick animals with a prescription. To support this position, please comment on the draft FDA guidance document and contact your Senator or Representative about this critical food safety issue.

4 Responses to “The Development of “Superbugs” through Meat Consumption”

  1. sbfhopkins Says:

    Thank you very much for raising this very important issue. While the FDA guidance is an important first step towards addressing the problem of antibiotic resistance caused by the use of antibiotics in food producing animals, mandatory action is necessary.

    Over the past decade, Denmark has led the way in eliminating the use of antimicrobial growth promoters in animal food production and moving to targeted therapy only under veterinary supervision. In 2003, the WHO produced a report on Demark’s experience that concluded that their policy has reduced the threat of resistance and achieved its public health goals without having a negative impact on the food production or safety. ( This is good news and it is time for the US to act.

    Democrats in the House of Representatives are heading the call to action are moving forward. At the recent House Energy and Commerce committee hearing in July of this year, Chairman Waxman voiced his support for swift action on this topic and HR 1549, the “Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009” introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) has garnered 122 co-sponsors. On the Senate side, the late Senator Kennedy (D-MA) championed the issue with his Republican counterpart Sen. Snowe (R-ME).

    However, industry forces that use antibiotics to compensate for the unhealthy conditions of animal feedlots are ready to fight. The only way we can win and protect antibiotics for human use, is this through a strong, concerted effort of public outcry and consumer involvement. Thank you again for calling attention to this critical public health issue.

  2. Paulencia Morris Says:

    I agree, this is a tremendously important Public Health issue that the US and the rest of the world are facing and I was so interested to read your post. It is encouraging to read about the work that some politicians are doing to combat this pertinent issue and I am certain that the food production industry is ready to fight in an effort to preserve their profits. I think it is time to start challenging the industry if they have become increasingly focused on their bank accounts when in actuality they should be focusing on creating a safe and healthy product while maintaining sanitary standards for their animals. This then not only becomes a Public health dilemma but an animal rights issue as well. Farmers should be required to maintain healthy environments for their animals not only for the health of their consumer population but because it is a humane thing to do and they should be underfire for a situation that has been going on far too long–at least now there is even more fuel for the fire! Hopefully with the new research from other countries and pressure from various angles, they will be forced to reform their practices and focus not only on their bottom line but on the safety of all beings involved in this process.

  3. katevat44 Says:

    Thank you for blogging about this issue, as I think it’s one that does not receive enough attention.

    Raising awareness will certainly help to lead to action in this area, but the FDA guidance is only that- guidance. Without further regulation on this issue, and additional funding and resources provided to the FDA to enforce such regulation, I do not believe enough incentive exists for this industry to reduce the antibiotics fed to animals produced for consumption.

  4. ryangdavis Says:

    Dr. Robert Lawrence gave a lecture in our Environmental Health course which mentioned some of these concerns. He noted that the Animal Health Institute reports 3.1 million lbs/yr of antibiotic use in US poultry and livestock for growth promotion and 14.7 million lbs/yr for “prophylaxis” and disease treatment. The Union of Concerned Scientists disputes these figures claiming 27.6 million lbs/yr are used for growth promotion and 2.0 million lbs/yr are used for “prophylaxis” and disease treatment. This compares to 4.5 million lbs/yr of antibiotics for human uses in the US reported by the Union for Concerned Scientists while the Animal Health Institute claims the number is 32.3 million lbs/yr. Among the antibiotics approved by the FDA for growth promotion and prophylaxis in poultry are some which are also used for human medical treatment including Bacitracin, Chlortetracycline, Enrofloxacin, Erythromycin and Penicillin. The administration of these antibiotics is widespread, prolonged and often at sub-lethal doses with little dose control in crowded, unhygienic conditions, selecting for bacteria resistant to the antibiotic.

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