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.