Animal Antibiotics in Food Production: What You Should Know

animal antibiotics: what you should know

Raising healthy and safe animals is a high priority for farmers, ranchers and the veterinarians who work alongside them. Despite this, animals may still become sick and require treatment, just like people. The use of U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved antibiotics help to keep animals healthy, but their use is limited in order to ward off the incidence of antibiotic resistant bacteria—which can be a problem for animals, people and the environment.

But what does this mean for our food supply? How can you make safe food choices? The following are common questions and answers about the use of animal antibiotics in raising food animals and antibiotic resistance.


What are antibiotics and why are they given to animals?

An antibiotic is a medication that is used to destroy bacteria that can be the source of infections and diseases. These medications have been used for both human and animal health for decades as prescribed by a doctor (veterinarian or physician). Antibiotics are only used in times of sickness and with veterinarian supervision. According to revised guidance, FDA does not permit using antibiotics for growth promotion in animals.

Why does using antibiotics require cautiousness?

With the prolonged or high-dose use of antibiotics in humans or animals (and via the general nature of bacteria for survival), bacteria can evolve to be resistant to antibiotics over time. These resistant bacteria are often called “superbugs,” and they can lead to serious infections and diseases. In addition, other “good bacteria” (natural bacteria in the body that can fight off the presence of “bad bacteria”) in the body can be negatively impacted. This can leave room for bad bacteria to thrive. This could also cause further sickness or new ailments.

Are there antibiotics in the food we eat?

Consumers are at little-to-no risk in consuming antibiotics from a previously treated animal. Whenever an antibiotic is used to treat a food animal, the animal is withdrawn from the food system by farmers and not will be used for a food production until the antibiotic has cleared its system. In addition, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) conducts a monitoring program to ensure that antibiotics are effectively eliminated from animals’ systems and that no unsafe residues are detected in all meat, poultry and dairy products before they are sold.

This reminds us to note that for meat and other food products labeled “no-antibiotics used ever,” there is no antibiotic avoidance advantage. As noted above, food animals and animal products that are being processed for consumption do not enter the food supply chain with antibiotics in their systems.

What is the health connection to using antibiotics in farm animals and me?

With responsible use, antibiotics are an integral tool for farmers and veterinarians to keep animals healthy. However, their use can contribute to the increased existence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (superbugs). These bacteria can be present in meat and poultry products (with or without antibiotic use) or can be in the environment (i.e. the soil or fertilizer used to grow fruits and vegetables). Consumers should employ safe food handling techniques for all foods: cooking foods to appropriate temperatures before consuming; avoiding cross contamination; using clean utensils, hands and surfaces for cooking; and storing foods at correct temperatures are integral food safety practices.

Two major environmental sources of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections are person-to-person contact and hospitals/healthcare facilities. This is largely why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging healthcare providers to improve antibiotic use by people through stewardship.

Are there “superbugs” in the meat, poultry, eggs or dairy foods we eat?

It is true that food is not sterile, and there is potential for bacteria to be lurking about.  Many common bacteria that are associated with food production and can be found in our food supply such as salmonella, E.coli, and listeria. Foodborne illness caused by these bacteria occurs quite frequently around the world. The CDC estimates 48 million people get sick from foodborne diseases each year in the United States.

Even with the diligent safety and quality assurance practices of food manufacturers and restaurants to provide safe and nutritious foods, the threat of bacteria presence does not always disappear.  Not all bacteria are “superbugs,” but consumers should be mindful of proper food handling. It is imperative to cook foods to the right temperatures, wash food products as necessary and store foods properly.

Final Fork Full

Food safety assurance is in the hands of regulators, farmers, processors and consumers. With proper safety practices at each point in our food system, we can continue to be confident in our food supply. While foods from animals previously treated with FDA-approved antibiotics are deemed safe to eat, consumers should use proper handling to avoid bacterial contamination and associated foodborne illness.

For more information, visit our Animal Welfare and Antibiotic Resistance Resources pages.