The Antibiotic Debate in Our Food Chain

The discovery of antibiotics in medical science is regarded as one of the most important medical advances in human history. It has allowed doctors to combat bacterial infections and save millions of lives. Just as the use of antibiotics in human health has revolutionized medical science, it has also revolutionized agriculture.

The use of antibiotics in agriculture is where much of the recent debate about antibiotic use has come about. On one hand, the use of antibiotics has helped producers around the world meet the growing demand for meat, dairy, and poultry products. On the other hand, because many of the antibiotics used in animals are the same as, or similar, to their human counterparts their use and misuse has increased the presence of drug-resistant strains of bacteria, and this can pose a serious threat to public health. In fact, the World Health Organization has described this as one of the “biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.”

Since their introduction into agriculture in the 1930s, antibiotics have been used in three main ways (1) to treat and cure sick animals, (2) to control the spread of disease in groups of animals where one or more are already sick, and (3) to prevent disease among a group of animals who are otherwise healthy. While this all sounds great, antibiotics have also been used for non-medical purposes such as promoting growth and increasing feed efficiency in the animals.

While the antibiotic debate in our food chain is complex, please know that this is not an issue producers nor our Federal regulatory agency takes lightly.

It is true that the overuse of these antibiotics in agriculture can result in superbugs, those drug-resistant strains of bacteria previously mentioned.  We also see this in human health – just recently my daughter suffered from multiple ear infections and the pediatrician was very mindful of which antibiotic she had previously been prescribed, due in part to the fear of creating the potential for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Similarly, when antibiotics are used extensively in livestock farming, bacteria can develop resistance to these drugs, rendering them ineffective in treating infections in both animals and humans. These antibiotic-resistant infections can then spread rapidly and result in higher mortality rates and healthcare costs.

Consumers have also voiced concern about the presence of antibiotic residue in the products we consume daily. For consumers and foodservice operators, it is important to note that antibiotics are not used haphazardly and 99.9% of livestock producers follow the recommendations and instructions from the antibiotic manufacturer. Among the regulations on antibiotics are clearly defined withdrawal periods, where the producer is required take the animal off the drug for a specified period before the animal is sold for slaughter. This withdrawal period ensures that the animal will not be sold with residue in excess of allowable limits. To ensure this is followed, both the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration test for antibiotic residue in the carcasses of meat products. Carcasses which test positive for antibiotic residue are not allowed to enter the food chain. Producers who sell animals which test positive for antibiotic residue lose the money the animal was sold for and will face increased scrutiny with any other animals sold for slaughter, which provides a huge incentive for producers to follow recommendations on the use of antibiotics.

Around the world, regulations to control the use of antibiotics in the production of food animals have been implemented. While some countries have banned the use of certain antibiotics for growth promotion purposes, others have implemented stricter regulations. In the United States, there are several laws that help to protect consumers. Most recently, a new law went into effect in June of 2023 which requires all antibiotic purchases to occur only with the prescription from a veterinarian. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration issued guidance to phase out the use of any antibiotic which was deemed as important in medical applications from livestock production, meaning it could be used to treat diseases, but not as an additive to feed to promote growth or increase feed efficiency.

While the antibiotic debate in our food chain is complex, please know that this is not an issue producers nor our Federal regulatory agencies take lightly. Antimicrobial resistance is something of which all levels of the food chain are keenly aware. Continued efforts will be needed to help curb the overuse of antibiotics in food production. But, there is certainly a balance in protecting human and animal health, while also meeting the increasing demand for food across the world. Risk Nothing.