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Why Does the Meat Industry Routinely Feed Animals Antibiotics?

When farm animals are fed antibiotics, they can develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their guts. Manure contamination of meat can then transfer these gut bacteria to humans. These bacteria can even spread to vegetarians, since drug-resistant bacteria in the animal feces can also spread to people through crops or the environment. Exhaust fans can blow MRSA superbugs straight out into the surrounding area from pig or poultry operations. This may explain why human MRSA infections in Europe have been tied to just living in a region with industrial pig production, whether or not people have direct contact with livestock. These findings may not just be limited to Europe.

European factory farms pale in comparison to what we have here in the U.S. From an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine: “proximity to swine manure application to crop fields and livestock operations was each associated with MRSA and skin and soft-tissue infections [in people in the U.S]. These findings contribute to the growing concern about the potential public health impacts of high-density livestock production.”

An article published in Lancet Infectious Diseases explains that, “achievements in modern medicine, such as surgery, the treatment of preterm babies, and cancer chemotherapy, which we today take for granted, would not be possible without access to effective treatment for bacterial infections. Within just a few years, we might be faced with dire setbacks, medically, socially, and economically, unless real and unprecedented global coordinated actions are immediately taken” to protect these wonder drugs. Therefore, the use of antibiotics just to promote the growth of farm animals to slaughter weights should be banned worldwide. Europe stopped feeding pigs and chickens tetracycline and penicillin to promote growth about 40 years ago, something the U.S. meat industry continues to do to this day.

The Pew Commission recently published a five year update on their landmark blue ribbon commission report on current agricultural practices that found “the present system of producing food animals in the United States presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health.” Their number one recommendation was to ban the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, but agriculture lobbies are not going to give up the use of antibiotics without a fight (See Antibiotics: Agribusinesses’ Pound of Flesh).

In December 2013, the FDA released “Guidance for Industry,” their voluntary, non-binding recommendation for industry. They recommend antibiotics no longer be used to just fatten animals for slaughter, but emphasize that they are just that: toothless, non-legally enforceable suggestions. As mentioned in the Pew Commission report, “this voluntary approach has come under withering criticism from the public health and medical communities concerned about the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens.”

The USDA is even considering going backwards, eliminating the requirement to even test for Staph aureus at all in the Federal School Lunch Program. They understand that “school-aged children are considered a ‘sensitive population’, hence, more stringent requirements, including sampling plans, may be considered to help assure safety and public confidence. However, the cost of such programs must be weighed against the cost of buying the food needed to support the program.”

As one University of Iowa epidemiologist said, “although human health should take priority over farm animals, farmers will be reluctant to change until researchers can come up with safe and cost-effective practices to replace the use of antibiotics.” How much are antibiotics really saving the industry? The net bottom-line benefit from the use of antibiotic feed additives may only be about $0.25 per animal, which means eliminating the risky practice of feeding antibiotics by the ton to farm animals would raise the price of meat less than a penny per pound.

For those not familiar with MRSA, please see my past videos on the topic:

For more on antibiotic use on the farm, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

34 responses to “Why Does the Meat Industry Routinely Feed Animals Antibiotics?

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  1. Michael Moore’s new film has a wonderful segment comparing school lunch programs in France against those here in the US. It’s a huge an eye opener. The French spend about the same as we do on their programs, but deliver fresh, well prepared meals to the kids every day and teach them nutrition along with it. They also view it as a community building social opportunity. The meals aren’t vegan :( and offer a different cheese every day. But their premise is that if you teach kids to appreciate “good food” and nutrition, they’re more likely to develop lifelong healthy eating habits and have better health, eating experiences and social connections because of it.

    BTW, the movie is called: “Where to Invade Next”, which is an ominous sounding title, but it’s actually a very fun and educational film. The title is a tongue-in-cheek premise that Moore is “invading” countries with successful social programs and “capturing” them to bring them back to the US and make them our own. Besides school lunches the film compares work laws in Italy, correctional facilities in Finland, free college in Slovakia (even for foreigners), and more. I really enjoyed and recommend it.

    Mark G.

    1. I agree Mark, it was an entertaining eye opener and leaves you shaking your head at the takeaway…the US was the source of most of the great ideas! Wow, times sure have changed.

      1. Right, and even Michael Moore said in an interview that he had no idea when he started the film that all of these ideas originated in the US. He also said that because so many people on both the right and left support many of the outcomes, he hopes that the movie will ignite a new level of cooperation to achieve similar solutions and to inspire a new group of documentary filmmakers who will create more films like this one. Here’s hoping!

    2. Probably interesting but you have to be careful when the source is Michael Moore. He does mix truth with lies. Remember, he is the guy that claimed, and demonstrated (through spin, lies, and mis-direction) that Cuba’s medical system is better than the USA’s system.

      1. It’s apparent that you did not actually see “Sicko”. He he did not say the Cuban healthcare system was better, just that it was accessible to all residents, unlike here where where you have to have private insurance or be wealthy. At least it was that way when the movie came out, and the way it still is for many unfortunate people living in states with certain Republican governors. It’s a typical tactic of the right wing: discredit the truth tellers and refuse to hear anything they say. His films are great and there is more truth there than you will find on a typical network news broadcast.

        1. you literally believe this lie he made in Sicko?

          Just listen to his lead in. He starts by by claiming that he knows what his audience is thinking and that “Cuba is where Lucifer lives. The worst place on Earth. The most evil nation ever created.”

          The intro starts right off over selling how horrible they must be via how we have been brain washed about it, to which I have never heard anyone say any of the things he claims people think or believe about Cuba.

          Then he goes on to show what is probably the nicest hospitals in Cuba, which is exactly the type of window dressing that you get if you went to North Korea for a tour. They take you to specific areas that are simply facades rather than the reality of it. Drs. all standing around studying xrays, watching an ultra sound, implying that door to door nursing is a totally common thing. All bs….unless you are paying with cash in a big tourist destination.

          At 1:00 in “they have become known around the world as having one of the best health care systems…”

          Then, of course, the lies about very low deaths at birth of infants. That data point has been debunked before this movie came out. Different countries count a fetus viable at different points in time. So a baby could die after being birthed and it not get counted as infant mortality because some criteria was not met.

          Using the best of the best as your base while ignoring what the average person can get, the quality of doctors, equipment, etc. is like going to Mexico to a specialized hospital that loves medical tourism so they cater to that and using that hospital as your base assumption as to what medical care is in all of Mexico.

          You can go there for world class health care, I’ll take it elsewhere.

    3. I had no idea that Michael Moore was doing things to improve humanity. My view of him from watching cable news was that his main purpose in life was to vilify, humiliate, and make fun of conservatives.

      1. Right. Thanks for that correction. I couldn’t remember which one he initially misstated and which he corrected to afterwards.

    1. Good to see someone cares, but the whole greedy culture of enslaving and objectifying animals as commodities to eat 3 times a day and the “solutions” to the inherent risks are beyond nauseating.

  2. I think that the main reason for the use antibiotics is not to promote the growth of the animals. They use antibiotics in order to make sure that the animals will survive under the terrible conditions of industrial farming.

    1. Either way, it’s not worth losing our first line of defense in fighting infections. It risks us going back to the bad old days when people died from routine operations and even common bacterial illnesses and accidents around the home. Scary.

  3. This goes back a few days to your video on male prostate cancer and eating habits. I was actually laughing out loud listening to you. Being a guy I could relate to how I used to be. You hit it right on the head. I’m a vegan now thanks to you and your other partners in this educational endeavor and mainly my wife’s great “Whole Food Plant Based” cooking. You hit the “Red Neck” mentality right on with this video. Great job!! Keep up the great work.


  4. Answer (not stated explicitly by Dr. Greger): aggressive marketing by the pharmaceuticals industry.

    Scary article; but maybe less so for organic vegans, because organic vegetable farms are less likely to be co-located with animal farms.

    1. I believe organic farms, unless they have their own animals, will put purchased manure as fertilizer on their crops. In which case, organics are not much safer in this case.

      1. I’ve stopped eating mushrooms, even organic ones, because I saw how they were produced in a fermenting pile of manure. Sure, the temperature reaches a value that kills the bad bacteria, but it doesn’t eliminate the chemicals, antibiotics, and whatever else may be there. And I we don’t know what is taken up by the growing mushroom and put into its cells. I’d really like to see a study on this.

  5. Without my own further research, this article does not seem to spend the time to answer the question that prompted it in the first place. Only what the negative side effects are to our society’s health and future. It ‘touches’ on the why but lacks the technical aspects to answer the question.

    While this is of paramount importance to us all and the obvious priority, I am curious as to the answer to the question : ‘Why does the meat industry use antibiotics?

    And better yet, ‘what is an alternative plan or course of action to alter the current plan that is so detrimental to our current and future health?’

    Thanks for the info!!

    1. Antibiotics are routinely fed to livestock, poultry, and fish on industrial farms to promote faster growth and to compensate for the unsanitary conditions in which they are raised. Today many animal farmers do not use antibiotics at all, in large part because they don’t have to compensate for unhealthy conditions associated with CAFO production systems. On these types of farms, animals are raised in clean environments with adequate space to reduce animal-stress and the likelihood of infections

      1. Though I no longer eat animal protein I know most people aren’t ready to stop. Given this, the best example for farmers – actual farmers, not meat factory managers – that I’m aware of is Joel Salatin. He does an amazing job, both in renewing his land without chemicals and raising animals as humanely as possible.

  6. Governments don’t change the status quo unless there is a severe crisis, and even then they only take half hearted measures to fix the crisis. It will have to be some kind of pandemic that moves government to ban antibiotics from the feedlots of animals. But, rest assured it looks like the “perfect storm” is brewing on on the horizon.

    1. I have to echo Rhombopterix above stating we might want to consider communicating these worrisome issues to our Representatives. After all, . . the government is us.

  7. There is a metabolic cost to the bacterium to maintain anti-biotic resistance. If we limit use to treat infections then the occurrence of super bugs will diminish, maybe disappear entirely.

    I think it is in our best interests to be more vocal to our respective gov’s. Of course everyone is entitled to my opinion.

    If we write to our representatives en mass expressing our wishes we will be herd. Heh

  8. As an MD, I agonized over prescribing antibiotics to save lives and limbs literally treating many people with diabetic polyneuropathy, extremity ischaemia, and amputations. Pneumonias, C Difficile, MRSA, VRE were commonplace. It was extremely frustrating to hear the blame toward doctors and hospitals knowing full well that cultures and many tests were utilized to make the right choices while in agriculture more than 75% of antibiotics were used willy nilly to promote animal growth AND highly resistant organisms. Proper hand washing is the first line defense. You really need Hazmat gear to properly handle chicken. I just chose to stop eating meat for this and many other reasons including health, world pollution, deforestation, and no less animal cruelty.

  9. And the sad fact is that in this insane election year, there’s absolutely no chance this will become a topic of discussion in the media. It’s all about immigration and foreign policy. No one gives 2 poops about this _serious global health threat_. Which is both sad and terrifying. Just hope that you don’t get any serious infections soon. Probably (a doctor can confirm) even diet will not be able to help you with a serious Staph infection.

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