Health experts worldwide are alarmed at the reckless use of antibiotics, and fear their overuse is creating a vast army of "superbug" bacteria with antibiotic resistance. Perhaps the biggest villains in the overuse of antibiotics are factory farms that raise millions of cattle, pigs, chicken and other livestock.
These farm animals are routinely given a steady supply of antibiotics in feed supplements and in water, regardless of whether there's evidence of any disease. Estimates vary--in part because nobody's keeping any records--but roughly 50 to 70% of all the antibiotics used in the United States go not to sick people, but to healthy animals.
Antibiotics: When Bigger Is not Better
This "sub-therapeutic" use of antibiotic drugs helps animals grow slightly larger (about two or three percent bigger). Some farmers argue that the constant use of antibiotics also helps to prevent diseases that would otherwise spread quickly in the crowded pens that are common on factory farms.
Groups like the American Medical Association, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Infectious Diseases Society of America have condemned the routine use of antibiotics, and are arguing in favor of legislation that would ban the use of antibiotics in healthy animals. And after many years of debate, the Food and Drug Administration is preparing to issue voluntary guidelines to limit antibiotic use; these are a step in the right direction, but the FDA guidelines are toothless recommendations that farmers are free to ignore.
Factory Farms: Here's the Beef
The agriculture industry isn't taking any of this lying down. Intense lobbying by big agribusiness groups like the National Chicken Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association have thus far prevented any meaningful action on the issue. "There is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotics used in food animals have a significant impact on the effectiveness of antibiotics in people," according to the National Pork Producers Council said.
But scientists by the score argue that antibiotic use in livestock is a real and immediate danger, especially in light of alarming nationwide outbreaks of E. Coli and salmonella poisoning. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, has found "compelling evidence" of a "clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans," according to a New York Times report.
What You Can Do About Antibiotic Resistance
Other nations have taken decisive action on the issue. In 2006 the European Union banned most antibiotic use in livestock. Since Denmark -- Europe's largest pork producer -- stopped using antibiotics sub-therapeutically in 2000, productivity has increased and bacterial resistance to antibiotics has declined. There was also a slight increase in antibiotic use for sick pigs, and a slight increase in pork prices.
Consumers who are concerned about antibiotic use in meat have several options. The best choice is to purchase meat products that have the USDA Organic label on them. These meats undergo third-party verification that no antibiotics or related drugs have ever been used. Meats that are labeled "No Antibiotics Added" are not third-party verified (though they might be antibiotic-free), and "All Natural" or "Free-Range" labels have nothing to do with antibiotic use.