I didn’t write about antibiotics in meat or milk for a couple reasons, but I’ll try to address at least some concerns regarding their use here.
To begin with, one of the major problems with talking about antibiotic use—specifically the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics, because nobody disputes the general use of antibiotics for animals who need them due to illness—is that we really don’t have any good data on how common it is. Instead, we have estimates from various sources that are wildly different. For example:
- The Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that 24.6 million pounds are used yearly for nontherapeutic uses.
- The Animal Health Institute estimates that only 3.1 million pounds are used yearly (out of a total use 17.8 million pounds).
It’s likely that neither of these sources is correct, especially considering the obvious risk of bias (the Union is an advocacy group for reducing antibiotic use, the Institute is sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry). If we really want to address the problem, we need to collect real data, not rely on “guesstimates” put forward by agenda-driven groups—but of course, there are barriers to this happening!
One important thing to note is that by far the most common nontherapeutic antibiotic used in animals—the type used to promote growth by improving feed efficiency (the ionophores)—have no use in human medicine and have been extensively shown not to be a risk in the development of resistance for antibiotics with human use (1,2). This is probably what most people think of when they think of the overuse of antibiotics in animals, but it’s actually demonstrably the least risky use of antibiotics.
More accurately, what the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics looks like is giving dairy cattle antibiotics after lactation to prevent mastitis—essentially, giving animals antibiotics before an illness occurs because history has shown that certain periods of time are more stressful and thus more likely to result in an infection. Many animals treated in such a way would never actually develop an illness, but it also prevents a large number of illnesses from ever happening.
Ultimately, one of the greatest problems is not that antibiotics are used non-therapeutically at times, but rather that the meat industry is so very large. Regardless of how many antibiotics are used non-therapeutically, the total amount of antibiotics used for completely legitimate purposes in animals dwarfs the number of antibiotics used in humans—in 2015, the agricultural industry ordered over 34 million pounds of antibiotics, compared to only 7 to 8 million pounds used in humans (in 2012, most recent data I could find; it’s unlikely to be much higher). And while the FDA warns about making direct comparisons using this data, it’s clear that many more animals get treated with antibiotics than humans, which brings us to the real issue…
Bacteria are constantly evolving. Ignoring the meat industry, the overuse of antibiotics in human populations alone has led to reduced antibiotic effectiveness and increased bacterial resistance. When you add in the many more animals that are treated with antibiotics, the development of resistance becomes that much more likely that much sooner. If we stopped treating animals prophylactically with antibiotics, we would somewhat reduce the amount of antibiotics used, but we wouldn’t solve the problem because millions of animals would still be receiving antibiotics perfectly legitimately.
This is why the WHO, among other organizations, has begun classifying antibiotics as critically important to human health, highly important to human health, and just important. Clearly, as long as we raise animals, we’ll need to treat those animals with antibiotics from time-to-time—but if we can reduce or eliminate the usage of critically important human antibiotics, then we’ll cause far less harm.
Some steps have recently been taken to bring the US closer to this goal. For one, the FDA has explicitly banned the use of medically important human antibiotics for growth promotion (which, as I mentioned, is not a common use, but now it’s also illegal). More importantly, medically important antibiotics must now be administered under the supervision of a veterinarian, which should significantly reduce unsanctioned use. It’s not perfect—a better solution would ban the use of medically important antibiotics when a veterinary-use-only alternative exists—but it’s a step in the right direction.
In the meantime, there’s little you can personally do to change it (except, again, by buying less meat). Buying organic may seem like a solution, since they don’t allow nontherapeutic use of antibiotics, but they still administer antibiotics in general when necessary, and that’s sort of the root problem—we must treat sick animals, and that treatment requires antibiotics. As far as I’m aware, organic producers use the exact same antibiotics when called for as any other producer; they don’t have different standards based on medical importance. Thus, while they may have a smaller comparative footprint, it’s still a noticeable one.