Environmental Issues: Food and Agriculture

Superbug Quiz

Feeding low levels of antibiotics to cows, pigs and chickens that aren't even sick breeds "super bugs" -- dangerous germs that are able to fight off antibiotics that spread to our communities and families.

Find out why these drugs are used on feedlots, the problems they pose and what you can do to keep you and your family healthy.

Why are antibiotics used on livestock animals?

Since the 1950s, it has become routine practice to add low levels of antibiotics to the feed or water of healthy poultry, cattle, and swine to promote faster growth and prevent infections that tend to occur when animals are housed in crowded, unsanitary, stressful conditions.

Why is the use of antibiotics in livestock a problem?

The unnecessary use of antibiotics in the livestock industry is a key culprit in the rise of drug-resistant bacteria that pose a growing public health risk.

By overusing antibiotics on industrial feedlots and feeding them to animals that don't have bacterial infections we're making the drugs doctors rely on to treat illnesses like pneumonia, strep throat, and childhood ear infections less effective.

Furthermore, we have few new antibiotics in the pipeline to replace those that are no longer effective, and many of them are more expensive or have greater side effects associated with them.

According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, almost 2 million Americans per year develop hospital-acquired infections (HAIs), resulting in 99,000 deaths, the vast majority of which are due to antibacterial (antibiotic)-resistant pathogens. MRSA alone kills more people (approximately 19,000) than HIV/AIDS. Although the number of these fatalities linked to livestock is not known, we do know that over 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are used in food animals (and the vast majority of this use is for animals that are not sick).

Drug-resistant infections are estimated to cost Americans up to $26 billion per year in additional healthcare costs. Those costs go up to as much as $36 billion a year when lost productivity and other factors are taken into account.

What do health experts say?


There is a remarkable level of agreement on the need to stop the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on animals, i.e. use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick and don't need them. Medical groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, public health groups such as the American Public Health Association, and scientific groups such as the American Society for Microbiology all agree that such use must stop to protect public health. Many of the nation's leading scientific and health-focused organizations have sounded the alarm over animal uses of these drugs, as documented in this fact sheet.

Is store-bought meat contaminated with superbugs?

Many studies show a multitude of resistant organisms on meat and poultry products purchased in grocery stores. For example, a recent study of meat and poultry from five U.S. cities found Staphylococcus aureus on 47 percent of samples. Ninety-six percent of those samples were resistant to at least one antibiotic, and 52 percent were multi-drug resistant.

Tests conducted by the FDA every year routinely show high levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria on retail meat. In 2010, almost 52 percent of chicken breasts tested were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant E. coli. Safe food handling practices are necessary to protect against exposure (see below).

How does farm-use of antibiotics contribute to drug-resistant diseases in people?

When farm animals receive antibiotics in doses too low to kill all the infectious bacteria in them, those bacteria that survive and flourish do so because they are resistant to the drug. As they multiply and interact with other bacteria, they pass on their resistance.

Bacteria can even share the traits that make them drug-resistant with other kinds of bacteria, leading to widespread drug-resistance and the creation of bacterial super-bugs.

How do these drug-resistant bacteria spread?

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria generated on industrial feedlots spread out in a number of ways:

  • By food: As noted above, testing of meat found in retail stores typically finds drug-resistant bacteria on meat and poultry products. Bacteria on food are carried into the kitchen where other foods can be cross-contaminated by contact with infected knives, cutting boards, our hands and other surfaces. We can then spread these bacteria to others.
  • By air and water: Drug-resistant bacteria have been found in drinking water near hog facilities in three states and have been detected in the air downwind from industrial swine facilities.
  • By livestock workers: Those who work in livestock operations can accidentally carry drug-resistant bacteria in their clothing and on their bodies, unwittingly passing them on to their families, friends, and communities.

What are other countries doing?

Many European countries stopped using penicillin, streptomycin, and tetracyclines to promote faster growth in animals in the mid-1970s. This policy was expanded to other medically important antibiotics in the 1990s and to all antimicrobial growth promoters across the European Union in 2006 (although "disease prevention" uses are still permitted with a prescription).

Denmark, the world's largest exporter of pork has gone further and restricts antibiotic uses for both growth promotion and to compensate for diseases caused by crowded, unsanitary feedlot conditions. Since the late 1990s, Danish pork producers achieved a 60 percent reduction of antibiotic use, substantially reducing incidence of antibiotic bacteria in feedlots and on meat. This transition was successful economically, with pork production actually increasing 50 percent and costs going up only by about 1 percent. Producers achieved these outcomes by adopting better animal management practices to improve sanitation and reduce animal stress, among others.

What can be done?

In May 2011, NRDC filed a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration to finally end the use of antibiotics in animal feed. We have won two decisions against the FDA, but the FDA continues to stall and has appealed one of the decisions already. We continue to press the fight in court. But while NRDC is seeking to end this abuse of antibiotics once and for all, you can take the following steps to protect yourself:

  1. Prepare foods safely at home -- follow the food-safety handling tips in our grilling guide.
  2. When shopping for meat, look for these labels that certify products come from farms that only use antibiotics on animals to cure infections and not for any other “non-therapeutic” uses:

    You may also want to look for labels like "No Antibiotics Administered" or "Raised Without Antibiotics", especially if they are USDA process verified. CAUTION: Even meat labeled "Organic" or "No Antibiotics Administered" can be contaminated with antibiotic resistant bacteria, so you'll still need to follow the safe handling practices above.

  3. Urge your representative to support the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA).

last revised 2/7/2014

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Learn More

Read the fact sheet Raising Resistance: Feeding Antibiotics to Healthy Food Animals Breeds Bacteria Dangerous to Human Health.

Find out what you can do to avoid overusing antibacterials in home products such as liquid soaps.

Check NRDC's Chemical Index to learn more about antibacterials Triclosan and Triclocarban.

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