Antibiotics in Our Food System

The rise of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become a critical public health problem, fueled in part by their use in industrial animal agriculture. Since the 1940s, antibiotics have played a critical role in protecting public health, and have saved millions of lives. However, the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics by the is now responsible for the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria that pose a grave threat to public health. According to the FDA, more than 20 million pounds of medically important antibiotic drugs modern food animal industry were sold for use in food producing farm animals in 2014.

Antibiotics have been used in livestock feed since the 1940s, when studies showed that the drugs caused animals to grow faster and put on weight more efficiently, increasing meat producers’ profits. Up until the recent past, when the FDA banned the practice, non-therapeutic antibiotics — those used for purposes other than treating disease — were routinely given to livestock, poultry and fish on industrial farms to promote faster growth.

As industrial farming has spread around the world, so, too, has the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics. One study estimates that global antimicrobial consumption will grow by 67 percent by 2030, due to increasing demand for animal-based products, with countries including Brazil, India and China doubling their usage over that time period. According to the World Health Organization, antibiotic-resistance in many areas of the world already exceeds 50 percent in many major bacteria groups, including E. coli, K. pneumonia and S. aureus.

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