Are Your Chicken Nuggets Ruining Your Antibiotic Ointment?

Tom Philpott

Mother Jones

October 8, 2014

dolphfyn/Shutterstock

Last week, the FDA released a report on the gross amount of antibiotics purchased by the livestock industry in 2012. The results are a bit startling. Between 2009 and 2012—a period of increasing awareness about the perils of antibiotic use in livestock facilities—the FDA found purchases of the drugs rose 16 percent. Over the same period, annual production of beefchicken, and pork barely budged, suggesting that the industry was becoming more antibiotic-intensive each year. Worse still, the FDA deemed 61 percent of the antibiotics sold to the meat industry in 2012 as "medically important"—meaning that they're commonly used in human medicine, and thus in danger of losing their effectiveness through resistance.

Late last year, after decades of foot shuffling, the FDA made its most decisive attempt ever to tamp down the meat industry's habit of dosing livestock with antibiotics to make them grow faster—although being a rather timid watchdog, the FDA chose to make the rules voluntary.

"If you talk to a veterinarian, they'll tell you that if drugs are being used in feed, for the most part, they're being used to promote growth or preventdisease, not to treat an animal that's known to be sick."

The new report shows just how dire things had become: 70 percent of the "medically important" antimicrobials sold to meat producers in 2012 were destined to be administered through feed, and another 24 percent through water. Just 6 percent were meant to be used topically or through injection—the way small-scale farmers use antibiotics to treat sick animals. "If you talk to a veterinarian, they'll tell you that if drugs are being used in feed, for the most part, they're being used to promote growth or preventdisease, not to treat an animal that's known to be sick," Keeve Nachman, who directs the Food Production and Public Health Program at Johns Hopkins' Center for a Liveable Future, told me. Also, 97 percent of the drugs were sold without a prescription from a veterinarian—a practice that the 2013 rules intend to stop.

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