Antibiotics in Food Animals: FAQ

Antibiotics in Food Animals: FAQ

By Daniel J. DeNoon
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 6, 2012 -- Food animals get 80% of the antibiotics used in the U.S. -- mostly in ways that can lead to the growth of drug-resistant superbugs.

Emerging drug resistance in bacteria is one of the world's greatest health threats, according to the CDC, the FDA, the World Health Organization, and a wide range of medical professional societies.

These groups cite "strong evidence" that many of these hard-to-treat germs arise in food animals and spread to humans. For this reason, the FDA argues strongly against unwise -- "injudicious" -- use of antibiotics in livestock. Yet over 80% of animal antibiotics are used in these ways.

In January 2012, the FDA prohibited some uses of the cephalosporin class of antibiotics in food animals. But these antibiotics make up less than a fraction of 1% of the 15,000 tons of antibiotics used in U.S. food animals each year.

This raises important questions. Here are WebMD's answers.

Why are antibiotics used in food animals?

There are two main reasons: To promote animal health, and to make animals grow faster.

The FDA has no problem with the antibiotics used to treat disease in animals. And it has no problem with antibiotics used under the direct supervision of a veterinarian who is treating specific animals.

But over 80% of antibiotics used in food animals is put into their feed or water by livestock producers, almost always on a herd-wide basis. This makes animals put on weight faster even if they don't eat more food.