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The American Meat Institute Gets it Wrong on Antibiotic Resistant Superbugs

Aaron French

Posted February 8, 2013

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Up Close and Cattle

While nearly every major health organization in the country has sounded the alarm over rising rates of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released new data showing an increase in antibiotic use by the livestock sector, an American Meat Institute website continues to claim that everything is just fine in the meat and poultry industry.  Here I debunk some of the misleading claims now posted at AMI’s “MeatMythCrushers” website:

FACT:  FDA does not limit the amount of antibiotics used by livestock producers, although MeatMythCrushers would have us believe that FDA is carefully regulating this problem.  In fact, the FDA oversees the registration and labeling of drug products but it does not limit how much or how often veterinarians can prescribe these drugs and many are available to livestock operators “over-the-counter” without need for any veterinary oversight.  Furthermore, because the agency acknowledges the health threat posed by over-use of medically important antibiotics in animal agriculture, it recently issued a “voluntary guidance” to industry in 2012, recommending — but not requiring — antibiotic use reductions.  

Furthermore, FDA is very clear that livestock use of medically important antibiotics poses a health risk and recently stated: "Antimicrobial resistance, and the resulting failure of antimicrobial therapies in humans, is a mounting public health problem of global significance.  This phenomenon is driven by many factors including the use of antimicrobial drugs in both humans and animals.”

FACT:  Human use and livestock use of antibiotics contributes to the problem of increasing antibiotic resistance by harmful bacteria — not just human use as MeatMythCrushers suggests.  There is no question that over-use of antibiotics by people is an important part of the problem.  But MeatMythCrushers is clearly raising this argument to distract us from the role of animal agriculture in creating this problem. 

The American medical community is united when it comes to the issue of antibiotic resistance and the contribution of livestock use of antibiotics to the problem.   The American Medical Association; American Academy of Pediatrics; American Public Health Association; Infectious Diseases Society of America; Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Bloomberg School of Public Health; National Foundation for Infectious Diseases; the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society and others have all declared that the “Overuse and misuse of important antibiotics in food animals must end, in order to protect human health.”

And in 2003, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences wrote: “Clearly, a decrease in the inappropriate use of antimicrobials in human medicine alone is not enough. Substantial efforts must be made to decrease inappropriate overuse of antimicrobials in animals and agriculture as well.”

FACT:  Livestock industry use of antibiotics has been increasingWhile the American Meat Institute claims that antibiotic use in meat production has been “relatively steady over time,” nothing could be further from the truth.  FDA reports show that antibiotics sold for use in livestock operations have quadrupled since 1970, from about 7 million pounds in 1970[1]  to nearly 30 million pounds in 2011.  Of this 30 million pounds, over two-thirds are medically important for humans.

FACT:  About 80% of all antibiotics sold in the United States are sold for livestock use.  MeatMythCrushers tries to cloud that statistic by questioning an estimate published by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2001. In fact, the UCS was very clear at the time that they were estimating that 70 percent of antibiotics produced in the U.S. are fed to livestock.  It wasn’t until a decade later, in 2011, that the FDA issued its first public statement on this topic, confirming that the percentage is even higher — about 80% of antibiotics are sold for use in animal agriculture.

Even if you exclude the antibiotics that are not considered medically important, over 70% of antibiotics that are medically important are sold for use by the meat industry.

FACT:   Antibiotic resistant superbugs bred in livestock facilities do threaten human health. The American Meat Institute tries to dispute this fact, but once again the science is not on their side.  Leading health organizations agree that life-saving antibiotic medicines are no longer working to treat infections in people and that massive use of these drugs in the livestock sector are part of the problem.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrote in 2010 that there is “strong scientific evidence of a link between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.”   Numerous peer reviewed scientific journal articles have documented the proliferation of antibiotic resistant superbugs in feedlots, their escape to the environment, the transfer of antibiotic-resistant “traits” from these superbugs to other bacteria, and transmission to humans.   (Pew Charitable Trusts maintains a partial bibliography ).  The World Health Organization reports the “evidence shows that pathogens that have developed resistance to drugs in animals can be transmitted to humans.”

FACT:  Model regulations in Denmark demonstrate that livestock producers can drastically reduce antibiotic use while remaining profitable.  The American Meat Institute tries to discredit Denmark’s groundbreaking ban on non-therapeutic antibiotic use in the meat industry, claiming the ban didn’t reduce the amount of drugs used.   But, the most recent update from Denmark reports that since 1994, the total consumption of antibiotics by livestock decreased by 51% while meat production actually increased by 17%.  Farmers in Denmark are producing more meat with fewer antibiotics.  Danish data show a decrease in antibiotic resistance in food animals and on retail meat since the 1994 policy changes, in most cases.  Changes in antibiotic resistance in humans is more complicated to track because there are many more variables involved, but even so, for some antibiotic resistant infections, scientists have observed a difference in rates of antibiotic-resistant infections since Denmark’s ban. For example, Campylobacter infections in humans that were associated with travel outside of Denmark demonstrated a significantly higher level of antibiotic resistance.  In addition, it has been reported that “the prevalence of vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium from humans has decreased since avoparcin was banned for use in animals in 1995.”


Photo by Alex E Proimos, on Flickr.


[1] Antibiotic and Sulfonamide Drugs in the Feed of Animals, 38 Fed. Reg. 9811, 9812 (Apr. 20, 1973).

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