The U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed numbers this week that indicate animal agriculture consumes 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States, more than previously estimated.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) announced Wednesday that FDA confirmed the numbers with her office for the first time. She plans to reintroduce a bill she crafted in 2009 aimed at preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics important for human health by limiting their use in agriculture.
“Today I confirmed an alarming number that should shock all of us: 4 out of 5 antibiotics sold in this country were for use on animals, many of whom are not even sick, and that is dangerous to all of us,” said Slaughter. “We already knew that 13.1 million kilograms of antibacterial drugs were sold for use on animals in 2009.  Recently, I was able to confirm with the FDA that only 3.3 million kilograms were are sold each year for human use in 2009. Using these figures, I have determined that 80 percent of all antibacterial drugs are dedicated to use on animals.”

Slaughter’s math is on point with December reports from Ralph Loglisci at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, also published at Food Safety News Dec 27, and Maryn McKenna, an infectious disease journalist and author of “Superbug.” 

Asked about the numbers, Sarah Hubbart, a spokeswoman for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, said it was “interesting” that Slaughter does not indicated what percent of the antibiotics given to food animals are the same types used to treat human illness. She noted that “a large percentage of the antibiotics used to treat and prevent illness in animals are ionophores, compounds not used in human medicine.”

Loglisci wrote in December that this industry argument–also cited by the National Pork Producers Council–is “inaccurate.”

“All uses of antibiotics have the potential to decrease the effectiveness of antibiotics in people. Ionophores are no exception,” he added.

But excluding ionophores, the portion of antibiotics given to food animals would be about 74 percent, a number that many in the public health community would like to see reduced.

“Decades of research on antibiotic over-use in animals shows that the drugs’ use encourages the development of resistant organisms on the farm that then move off the farm — and most recently, that low-dose use, what the industry calls ‘sub-therapeutic’ use, may actually stimulate the emergence of mutations even more than full-strength use,” said McKenna, in response to Slaughter’s announcement.

“It’s encouraging to see that this issue will continue to be pressed in Congress,” she added.

Correction: This article originally misstated that excluding ionophores would change the estimate to 57 percent. The correct estimate is actually 74 percent.  

  • The reporter was taken by the animal ag alliance reppresentative. FDA made public the amount of ionophores used, 3.7 million kg. If you take it out you still get 74% of antibiotics used in food animals not the 57% in the article. The industry number is based on taking the ionophores out of the contribution from agriculture but leaving it in the total amount. Either you count it or not but you cannot count it towards the total and then not count as coming from animals.A correction would be appreciated and less credulity when listening ag industry reps.

  • poppa

    Congresswoman Slaughter and her supporters are using numbers to support their motives. Remember this “figures don’t lie but liars do figure”

  • onafixedincome

    And of alllll those antibiotics sold to farmers, how much winds up discarded or unused down the road? As a small farmer, I’ve bought antibiotics, used the correct dose for one animal, perhaps half a dozen all together before it goes out of date, and the remainder of that bottle is disposed of..or sits around until it fossilizes.
    That’s a lot of antibiotics being sold and NOT used that isn’t being reflected in the numbers, and I shudder to contemplate getting an accurate number.
    Another thing–of those numbers, how much is being purchased in the US and used by companies to formulate feeds OUTSIDE the US, which often contain more antibiotics than US-used feeds?
    We have the privilege of the safest and cleanest food in the world, people–let’s not screw it up with legislation that is not actually science based, but which manipulates numbers with apparent logic to further a private agenda.
    YES, responsible antibiotic/antimicrobial use is important, no doubt about that. The better the education provided to the people who use antibiotics, the lesser the hazard of misuse.
    So why not use the network of extant resources–the Agricultural Extension Offices–to better educate ALL animal owners and producers? Funding to do this would surely make a lot more sense than to eliminate the use of antibiotics vital to our food producing sector.

  • Michael Bulger

    Even removing the ionophores from the numbers leaves most of the antibiotics that figured into these statistics. Slaughter’s bill would have removed such important medications as penicillin and tetracycline from subtherapeutic usage. Farmers would still be able to treat sick animals. PAMTA was about not feeding important human medicines to animals who don’t need them, effectively creating a training camp for resistant-bacteria and posing a serious public health threat. I look forward to seeing the reintroduced bill.