Farm Antibiotics Spur Antibiotic-Resistant Disease in Humans

Story at-a-glance

  • Experts warn that the age of antibiotic drugs is coming to an end, as more and more strains of bacteria are becoming resistant to even our strongest antibiotics
  • Hospital-acquired infections have skyrocketed, now affecting one in 25 patients, and many of these infections are drug resistant
  • Use of antibiotics in healthy livestock account for about 80 percent of all antibiotic use in the US, so in order to halt the growth of antibiotic resistance we must address this source
  • Last year, the CDC published a report admitting that antibiotics used in livestock plays a significant role in antibiotic resistance and “should be phased out”


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

Believing an antibiotic can cure severe infection or illness is taken for granted by most people. Unfortunately, there will come a day when this no longer holds true—unless we act quickly.

Over the past several years, experts have repeatedly sounded the alarm, warning us that the age of antibiotic drugs is coming to an end, as more strains of bacteria are becoming resistant to even our strongest antibiotics.1

The implications of this are dire, as it would raise the stakes for a number of medical interventions.

Without antibiotics, it will be very difficult to care for premature babies and cancer patients, for example. Antibiotics are also necessary elements for performing organ transplants, surgeries, and emergency room medicine.    

Indeed, we’re already seeing the effects. Hospital-acquired infections have skyrocketed, now affecting one in 25 patients, and many of these infections are drug resistant.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics,2 two million American adults and children become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 of them die as a direct result of those infections.

Antibiotics in Agriculture Must Be Reduced to Solve This Problem

Use of antibiotics in healthy livestock account for about 80 percent of all antibiotic use in the US,3 so in order to halt the growth of antibiotic resistance, we really must address this source.

According to a 2009 report4 by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on this subject, factory farms used a whopping 29 million pounds of antibiotics that year alone.

Besides promoting growth in livestock, antibiotics are also used to compensate for the crowded, unsanitary living conditions associated with large-scale confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Since the animals are routinely fed low doses of antibiotics, the bacteria become resistant far more easily than they do when you’re aggressively treating an active infection until all the bacteria are eradicated.

As a result of this agricultural practice, you end up ingesting these drug remnants through the animal products you consume. And, since you’re now getting very low doses of antibiotics through your food on a regular basis, the promotion of resistance continues in the human population as well.

Even vegetables may be contaminated with antibiotics if the farmer uses manure from treated cows as crop fertilizer... The only way to avoid it is to make sure you’re eating organically-raised, grass-fed or pastured meats and animal products, as organic standards do not permit hormones and antibiotics to be used in livestock for growth promotion purposes.

Appeals Court Sides with FDA in Antibiotics Litigation

In 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and several other groups sued the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for failing to curtail antibiotic overuse in agriculture. At the time, NRDC executive director Peter Lehner said:5

“More than a generation has passed since FDA first recognized the potential human health consequences of feeding large quantities of antibiotics to healthy animals.6

Accumulating evidence shows that antibiotics are becoming less effective, while our grocery store meat is increasingly laden with drug-resistant bacteria.

The FDA needs to put the American people first by ensuring that antibiotics continue to serve their primary purpose -- saving human lives by combating disease.”

Court rulings were issued compelling the FDA to hold hearings on the withdrawal of penicillin and tetracycline products used for growth promotion purposes in livestock, to address the problem of antibiotic-resistance. Alas, on July 24, the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned these lower court rulings,7 reaffirming the FDA’s right to act (or not) at its own discretion.

The FDA has argued that it is addressing the issue. For example, it recently asked drug companies to voluntarily remove growth-promotion claims from certain antibiotics that are valuable in treating human disease.

But with antibiotic-resistant disease being such a phenomenal threat to human health, a voluntary strategy is not likely to go far enough to curb the problem.  The Circuit Court, unfortunately, didn’t take the effectiveness of the FDA’s strategy into account when making its ruling, stating that:

“[W]e place no weight on the agency’s informal assurances that its program is successful. It is not for us to determine whether the agency has been prudent or imprudent, wise or foolish, effective of ineffective in its approach to this problem.

Whether the agency’s long inaction in the face of the dangers highlighted in the 1977 NOOHs represented politically-inspired foot-dragging or wise caution in developing a cost-effective approach, it was for the agency, and not the courts, to determine how best to proceed.”

Will White House Report Reaffirm Link Between Antibiotic-Resistant Disease and Antibiotics in Agriculture?

Meanwhile, transcripts from a White House advisory group (President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, PCAST) meeting suggest that the panel’s report will affirm the link between agricultural use of antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant disease in humans. According to Reuters:8

“Committee members have declined to discuss the report before its release, which is expected to happen in the next few weeks. In the transcript, council co-Chairman Eric Lander said there was ‘clear documentation’ that antibiotic-resistant microbes can transfer from farm animals to humans.  

‘That judicious use [of antibiotics] in agriculture right now is absolutely essential,’ Lander said in the transcript. ‘There may come a point where one will say it's justified to say no use.’"

This won’t be first time this link has been detailed. Just last year, the CDC published a report9 admitting that antibiotics used in livestock plays a significant role in antibiotic resistance and “should be phased out.” Yet despite all the evidence, very little is being done to actually curtail agricultural use of antibiotics. It’s to the point that, in mid-July, US Congresswoman and microbiologist Louise M. Slaughter10 (NY-D) sent a letter asking President Obama to issue an executive order, requiring all federally purchased meat to be raised without antibiotics.

Another Meat Scandal Rocks Fast Food Chains

According to last year’s CDCs report on antibiotic-resistant threats,11 drug-resistant hazards in the US food supply pose a serious threat to public health. The report linked 22 percent of antibiotic-resistant illness in humans to contaminated foods, and earlier research12 has suggested you have a 50/50 chance of buying meat tainted with drug-resistant bacteria when you buy meat from your local grocery store.

This threat was again highlighted when, late last month, Yum Brands Inc. severed ties with a Chinese meat processor, OSI China, following revelations of hazardous practices. Apparently the meat supplier was routinely selling expired meat, and processing meat that had fallen on the floor. Shanghai police have so far detained five people associated with the food safety scare, including the head of Shanghai Husi Food Co., Ltd and its quality manager. According to a recent Reuters report:13

“KFC and Pizza Hut parent Yum, McDonald's and coffee chain Starbucks Corp are among the global brands that pulled products from their outlets after the news broke that Shanghai Husi supplied expired meat to clients in China as well as in Japan, in the latest in a series of food scandals in the country. Earlier, the official Xinhua news agency cited the Shanghai food and drug watchdog as saying that food-safety violations at Shanghai Husi were company-led rather than the acts of individuals.”

Choose Your Foods Wisely

Conventional medicine certainly needs to curtail its prescriptions for antibiotics, but even if you use antibiotics judiciously you're still exposed to large amounts of antibiotics that are in many of the foods you eat. If you are eating any factory farmed and mass-processed meats, you are not only getting a load of antibiotics but also many bacteria that are resistant to them. And if the meat is not cooked properly, you can become infected with these antibiotic-resistant bugs.

Other than its lower initial purchase price, CAFO meat has absolutely no redeeming value and for many will have far higher costs once health is factored into the equation. To avoid the health risks associated with CAFO-raised animals, I recommend sticking exclusively to organic, grass-fed, free-range meats or organic pastured chickens, as non-medical use of antibiotics is not permitted in organic farming. They’re also far superior to factory farmed meats in terms of nutritional content, due to the differences in the animals’ diets.

To source pure, healthful meats, your best option is to get to know a local farmer -- one who uses non-toxic farming methods. If you live in an urban area, there are increasing numbers of community-supported agriculture programs available that offer access to healthy, locally grown foods even if you live in the heart of the city. Being able to find high-quality meat is such an important issue for me personally that I've made connections with sources I know provide high-quality organic grass-fed beef and free-range chicken, both of which you can find in my online store. You can eliminate the shipping charges, however, if you find a trusted farmer locally.

If you live in the US, the Weston Price Foundation14 also has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase these types of foods, including grass-fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.


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