Watch CBSN Live

Why the Meat Industry Is Overdosing on Antibiotics (and Still Denying It)

(***UPDATE 2/24/2011: The FDA confirmed that 80% of all antibiotics in the U.S. go to animal agriculture, a higher percentage than everyone had previously assumed.)

Late last week, the FDA threw a giant blast of sunshine into the issue of antibiotic use in agriculture, revealing that the meat industry uses a lot more of these powerful drugs than they've been letting on. The FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine reported that animal producers in 2009 used 29 million pounds of drugs like penicillins and tetracyclines, a figure that's 63% higher than the 17.8 million pounds the meat industry has quoted.

The agency's decision to release this information for the first time is further evidence that antibiotic use is becoming a huge liability for the meat industry. The report is a prelude to strong guidelines on antibiotic use the FDA is expected to release within a few months. Though these rules would be voluntary, meat companies will be under considerable pressure to follow them.

It's not just the FDA beating up meat companies over antibiotic use. Various medical groups, including the American Medical Association and the Infectious Diseases Society of America, have called for a complete ban on antibiotic use in healthy animals, calling the practice a major threat to human health.

The concern here is that the routine dousing of healthy animals will lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to drugs, which could render life-saving human antibiotics useless. Already there is evidence of resistant E. coli and salmonella on farms, and scientists say that those sturdy bacteria sometimes find their way onto the meat people buy at supermarkets. In July, CDC director Thomas Frieden told Congress that there is "compelling evidence of a clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans."

The FDA report is going to make it harder for the meat industry to convince people that its producers use antibiotics carefully and judiciously. On its web site, the National Pork Board seems to want to convey the impression that pigs are only treated when they are sick:

Antibiotics are given strategically -- administered when pigs are sick, susceptible or exposed to illness. Antibiotic use is not routine, but targeted when pigs are exposed to illness or are sick.
Given the 29 million pounds revelation, this means one of two things -- either most antibiotics are going to cows and chickens (unlikely) or the pigs we eat spend most of their lives quite sick or about to become sick. This latter assertion might be true. Critics of factory farming say that seemingly healthy animals need antibiotics because their cramped, crowded conditions are a breeding ground for bacteria and result in weakened animal immune systems due to stress.

The focus on antibiotics within the context of factory farming puts the meat industry in a tough bind. It's left trying to defend their practices without creating the impression that they're raising the meat we eat in conditions so unhealthy they require lots of non-sick animals to be given antibiotics. Judging by the industry's lack of a cogent defense of the issue, I'd guess they're still trying to work this one out.

Image from Seven Trees