Reduced Use of Antibiotics in Animal Agriculture

A study recently released by the USDA found that, "use of antibiotics for purposes other than disease treatment is associated with a 1- to 3-percent increase in productivity of a farm (not statistically distinguishable from no effect)."

In 2015, numerous food chains and food suppliers announced plans to purchase chicken raised without the use of antibiotics. Companies pledging this year to purchase antibiotic-free chicken include: Applegate, Chipotle, Elevation Burger, Panera, McDonalds and Costco.

Companies promising to purchase only antibiotic-free poultry did so, at least in part, in response to consumer interest. Consumer Reports found that about 20 percent of humans that fell sick due to antibiotic resistant bugs were infected from food. About 2 million Americans develop antibiotic resistant infections every year-- of those, about 23,000 die. As such, many savvy consumers prefer purchasing meat and poultry produced on antibiotic-free farms.

Antibiotic resistance is a huge health challenge not just in the United States but around the world, according to the World Health Organization. Antibiotic resistance has multiple origins. Over use and improper use in human medicine is a problem.

Routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture to increase growth and as a prophylactic measure to prevent disease in crowded conditions also contributes to antibiotic resistance. In fact, about 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used in meat and poultry farms.

The American Public Health Association recently determined, "resistant bacteria are transmitted to humans through direct contact with animals, by exposure to animal manure, through consumption of undercooked meat or surfaces meat has touched."

Indeed, half raw chicken sold contains antibiotic resistant bacteria.

As such, 25 public health organizations, including the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, issued a joint statement calling for significant reductions in the use of antibiotics for animal food production.

Market pressure from powerful corporations to reduce the agricultural use of antibiotics to promote growth (rather than treat sick animals) is an important step in the road to reducing antibiotic resistance but is also an important victory for consumers dedicated to better health. And it is good for the economy. Use of antibiotics to promote growth does not create dramatically cheaper or abundant food. Moreover, restriction of use to only sick animals may help reduce health care costs by reducing the number of antibiotic resistant infections (including those resulting in death).

Elizabeth Ann Glass Geltman is the author of 17 books on environmental and natural resources policy. She is an associate professor and program director for Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Public Health and the Urban School of Public Health at Hunter College. She also serves as the Secretary of the Environment Section of the American Public Health Association.