Do We Really Need to use Human Medicine on Farm Animals?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took action on Wednesday, January 4 to ban certain uses of one class of drugs, cephalosporins, in raising cattle, pigs, chickens, and turkeys. Cephalosporin drugs are used to treat pneumonia, urinary tract infections, gastro-intestinal diseases, and other life-threatening infections in people; the FDA’s action will help preserve the effectiveness of drugs like Keflex and Cefzil.

While this is an important move, most people who read the coverage were left scratching their heads trying to figure out what it meant.  In an effort to explain the importance of this ban, and the underlying issues, let’s start at your local zoo.

Most every children’s zoo has a section devoted to farm animals. With miniature barns and sometimes a pasture, these zoos show an idealized picture of how most people think farm animals are raised, even though it dates to the nineteenth century and before. Today, however, the animals that become our food are raised in tightly packed, sprawling buildings where sanitation is always a prominent concern given the copious amounts of animal manure produced.

As a result, the same antibiotics that we take for strep throat and other bacterial infections are routinely given to these animals to prevent disease and to help them grow bigger and faster.  For example, the chickens that we eat (which are referred to as ‘broilers’) are typically raised in operations that annually produce more than 600,000 birds. Most of these birds are injected with an antibiotic (which has belonged to the cephalosporin class of medicines) while still in the egg to prevent new chicks from catching an infection.

Antibiotics have also been used for decades to boost the growth rates of farm animals, although the exact reasons why this happens are not known for certain. The bottom line is that most food animals are raised in industrial-scale facilities and given drugs that humans use so that the animals stay alive and arrive at the slaughterhouse faster.

How much of our medicine cabinet is devoted to raising farm animals? In the United States, 80 percent of all antibiotics are used on the farm, according to FDA data obtained by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

The problem is that bacteria flourish in farms of all shapes and sizes, and more animals means more bacteria.  Much of this bacteria comes into contact with the antibiotics and much of it is killed.  But bacteria that survives an exposure to an antibiotic, mostly because the antibiotic isn’t present in large enough quantities, shares the ability to survive a dose of antibiotics with adjacent bacteria. Even if the same drug is later given at a proper dose, the bacteria has already acquired a resistance and will survive.

Advocates have warned for decades that the use of human medicines in this manner was a public health threat waiting to happen.  More and more, we see these warnings coming true, with antibiotic resistant bacteria ending up in the environment and on our food. A study last year sampled grocery store meat in Washington D.C., Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles, and Flagstaff and found that almost one quarter of all samples were contaminated by the bacteria that causes staph infections—and that bacteria was resistant to three or more classes of antibiotic drugs. There are only seven classes of antibiotics important to human medicine.

Rich Wood, who leads the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition of advocacy organizations, observes that “when you have pigs and other animals under stress in confined areas for their entire life, you have to use antibiotics to keep them healthy.  If you change the equation and take away the antibiotics, then you have to change the management process. And that’s what we need to do—make the way we raise our food more healthy for the animals and more healthy for us.”

The FDA’s step this week was significant, and Wood’s coalition is pushing to keep the momentum moving forward. This is not an impossibility, he notes, as the precedent has already been set in other countries. “Denmark is one of the major exporter of pig products in the world, and they have learned to do it without medically important antibiotics—why can’t we?”



Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Dan Klotz is a veteran writer and advocate on conservation efforts and the health and sustainability of our food systems. Dan's career has spanned a wide range of policy issues, including protecting sharks around the world, securing the land rights of indigenous communities, addressing the sustainability and research needs of agriculture both domestically and internationally, advocating for smoke-free workplaces, cleaning up toxic waste sites, and preserving wild areas on land and in the ocean.