Combating Antibiotic Overload

Confinement production of livestock in the United States would be virtually impossible without antibiotics. The practice of feeding farm animals low-doses of antibiotics in food and water originated in the 1950s in order to promote growth. It has since become standard practice, enabling industrial operations to suppress disease while rearing tens of thousands of animals in crowded and unhealthy environments.

Seventy-percent of antibiotics used in the United States are fed to cattle, pigs, and chickens that have not shown disease symptoms, but rather receive the drugs prophylactically. This practice, known as nontherapeutic use (in contrast to therapeutic use of antibiotics for treating sick animals on an individual basis), has contributed significantly to the development of new strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

The diminished efficacy of these antibiotics poses an urgent public health concern for animals, humans, and for children in particular, who are especially susceptible to antibiotic resistant infections. New infections are constantly being linked to industrial farming, including Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a disease causing 18,000 deaths each year in the U.S.1

Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and 46 House cosponsors and the late Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and 3 Senate cosponsors moved to address this health threat through the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009, H.R. 1549 and S. 619, which would prohibit the nontherapeutic feeding of medically important antibiotics to livestock. Addressing the House of Representatives last March, Representative Slaughter stressed the importance of the bill, urging that "[u]nless we act now, we will unwittingly be permitting animals to serve as incubators for resistant bacteria."

Though opponents of the bill allege that a ban would increase meat costs to consumers, in reality consumers already pay the price for industry’s reliance on antibiotics. In addition to being a major public health concern, antibiotic resistance increases healthcare costs by $4 to $5 billion a year.2

Fortunately, through the use of responsible, humane management practices, farm animals can be raised under conditions which obviate the need for the prophylactic feeding of antibiotics. By increasing reliance on vaccinations, diligently monitoring animal health, and most importantly, by phasing out stressful confinement housing systems which compromise animals’ immune systems and facilitate disease transmission, producers can manage animal diseases without resorting to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics.

AWI’s own Animal Welfare Approved label prohibits the use of nontherapeutic antibiotics. Instead, farmers maintain herd health through vaccination, pasture management, exceptional hygiene, and the reduction of stressors which weaken animal immune systems. The Animal Welfare Approved program requires farmers to provide sick animals with appropriate medical treatment but promotes the use of antibiotics only for individual animals that need them, rather than as a means of compensating for unhealthy and inhumane living conditions.

Please write to your Representative and Senators asking them to cosponsor the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, H.R. 1549 and S. 619 and tell them that the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics on industrial farms jeopardizes human health while perpetuating a system of inhumane and irresponsible animal husbandry. The addresses can be found on the following page.

1Mellon M, Benbrook KL. Hogging It! Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock. Union of Concerned Scientists: Cambridge, MA, January 2001.

2Stephen R. Palumbi. Humans as the World's Greatest Evolutionary Force. Science 7 September 2001: 1786-1790