Squashing Superbugs in the Livestock Industry


Elena Seeley, Food Tank

June 1, 2021


Each year the United States sees around 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections and more than 35,000 deaths as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Public health experts warn that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock is contributing to this rising threat, with more than 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States going toward animal agriculture.


While some producers use antibiotics only to treat sick animals, many use them as production tools. They do so to prevent illness—because animals live in stressful and immunocompromising conditions— or to improve growth rates. But the World Health Organization recommends against this overuse and misuse of antibiotics, which can lead to antibiotic resistant bacteria.


Antibiotic resistance occurs when select organisms survive the antibiotics and multiply, resulting in strains that doctors can no longer treat with medication. The more producers treat livestock with antibiotics, the greater the risk that resistant strains will develop, spread, and threaten public health systems.


Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, Founder and Director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, believes that it is essential that the food system shift away from these current practices. “We need to completely rethink how we incentivize the development, introduction, and use of these valuable resources that are antibiotics,” Laxminarayan tells Food Tank.


Some sectors of the food system have seen positive changes. The chicken industry, for example, has recorded a decline in antibiotic use in recent years. But antibiotic use across the food system is actually on the rise. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that between 2017 and 2019, antibiotic sales for livestock jumped 11 percent. This is largely due to demand for cows and hogs, which received 41 percent and 42 percent of antibiotics, respectively...


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