We Know the Dangers of Using Antibiotics in Farming: When Are We Going to Stop?

This is a guest post from Laura Rogers, director of human health and industrial farming at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

In 1977, Jimmy Carter was president, Elvis Presley was still in the building and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was rolling up its sleeves to start addressing the problem of antibiotic overuse on industrial farms.

Thirty-six years later, President Barack Obama is settling into his second term, Elvis impersonators are going gray and retiring and the FDA still has not adequately addressed the public health threat posed by antibiotic overuse.

We cannot wait any longer.

In the 1950s, meat and poultry producers began feeding antibiotics to healthy animals largely to make them grow faster and to compensate for the increasingly overcrowded and unsanitary conditions on their farms. Even though Alexander Fleming, the scientist who earned a Nobel Prize in 1945 for discovering penicillin, warned that these practices would breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it wasn’t until 1969 that a groundbreaking report provided the first scientific evidence that confirmed his theory. Acting on this report and additional studies conducted in the early and mid-1970s, the FDA took steps in 1977 to restrict the use of several important antibiotics in animal feed for production purposes (as opposed to medical reasons). Unfortunately, the agency’s journey never extended beyond these first few strides.

Hundreds of studies have since piled up in peer-reviewed science journals, which justify FDA action. The agency–along with the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture–recognizes that using antibiotics in food animal production helps create antibiotic-resistant bacteria that infect people.

Basic microbiology tells us that bacteria develop resistance whenever they are exposed to antibiotics. The Animal Health Institute, which represents veterinary-drug makers, recognizes that germs spread easily between species. In fact, it reports that, over the last three decades, 75 percent of new human diseases started out in animals. Furthermore, new DNA fingerprinting techniques document that certain strains of the dangerous superbug MRSA–methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus–are spreading from livestock to people. Additional research and experience shows that when people contract these kinds of resistant infections, their hospital stays tend to be longer, their healthcare costs higher and their chances of survival lower.

However, resistance does not just harm people; it also threatens animals. Back in 2005, the FDA withdrew an antibiotic from use in poultry production because it quickly and quite noticeably bred drug-resistant bacteria that threatened human health. A coalition of animal veterinarians fought to keep using the new drug because the old ones, tetracyclines, “[had] been used for decades in the U.S. poultry industry, without prescription requirements, to the point where tetracycline resistance [became] the norm, not the exception.” In other words, the widespread use of tetracyclines on healthy animals made it more difficult to treat the sick ones. If the FDA had followed through on its early efforts to restrict the overuse of antibiotics on livestock four decades ago, these drugs would most likely be more effective than they are today.

A graphic of Elvis, In 1979 the FDA started work on rules about antibiotics usage

Last year, the FDA finally resumed its long-delayed effort to curb the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production. While the agency did not continue its original strategy of mandating restrictions, it is pushing voluntary measures that instruct drug companies to stop marketing antibiotics for production purposes such as growth promotion. More than 14 months have passed, though, and the guidelines remain in draft form. We need them finalized now.

Running for re-election, President Obama told Scientific American in September 2012 that his “administration is taking steps to limit antibiotic use for livestock. This will help ensure that antibiotics are used only [to] address diseases and health problems, and not for enhancing growth and other production purposes.”

Mr. President: the FDA took steps in 1977. Please finish the job in 2013.

Take Action: Send a written comment to President Obama about the problem of antibiotic overuse on industrial farms.

Photo Credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa3 years ago

Thank you

Fred Hoekstra
Fred H3 years ago

Thank you The Pew Charitable Trusts, for Sharing this!

Fredeik De Roeck
Frederik D3 years ago

This is kind of a difficult one for me really, I tend not to sign this, since I think it's the problem of those who think it's necessary to murder animals for their food. If people would lessen their meatconsumption, antibiotics wouldn't be needed anymore. People want a lot of meat and they want it very cheap. Guess what, you need to keep a lot of animals in a little space, and they have to grow superfast, that's impossible without any antibiotics.
Please do the good thing and go vegan/vegetarian

Dale O.

Fascinating to see that Americans put so many antibiotics, growth hormones, GMOs, not to mention other toxins in almost all aspects of their food production. GMO is not labelled while in other nations it often is. American milk is banned in many countries including mine as there are too many antibiotics/growth hormones in it. Whatever happened to growing all foods naturally? The corporate world is far too greedy in all food industries it appears. Monsanto's seeds of destruction is ruining organic veggie farming by cross contaminating organic fields and then Monsanto has the nerve to charge organic farmers for their 'patented' seeds which the organic farmer never wanted in the first place. Monsanto soaks food in its eternal wash of pesticides, killing off bees in multitudes.

Jim C, if you don't wish to eat animal products, that is fine with me, but not everyone wants to be vegan. Many avoid factory farms for meat, eggs and even honey which vegans refuse to eat. People will still wear wool hats even if vegans refuse to. Not every omnivore even eats meat every day and many choose foods that aren't factory farmed.

Christine W.
Christine W4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y4 years ago

Encouraging to find this news in the papers today, too.

Monika Ka
Monika K4 years ago


Terry V.
Terry V4 years ago


Dawnie D.
Past Member 4 years ago

A very eye opening read...Thank you. This is a huge problem all over as far as I know. Why did farming become such a cesspit of unethical activities that are not natural for man or beast?
Animals of earlier centuries weren't pumped full of poison antibiotics for no good reason and secondly farmers of these era's wouldn't have had such drugs and could not have afforded such even if animal was sick. There is an easy answer and that is for farms to get back to humanely treating their farm animals and giving them warm dry housing with lots of room to move with natural pasture. Products would become more expensive but we could take a leaf out of our great grandparent's books and learn to cook with little and feed a lot and if people are meat eaters they would just have less and learn to eat other things that are healthy and good meat would be special treat like it used to be, and we wouldn't miss it and the quality of our life would no doubt be better. I can hear the meat industry yelling from here because their mantra is raise it as fast as possible with food that is not natural and drugs pumped in just because they can and think we the public are to dumb to question their scientific knowledge. Also it makes their walk to the bank all the more enjoyable because we must not get in the way of profit and the bottom line. Love & Peace.