US beef industry's rampant overuse of antibiotics in livestock poses grave threat to public health: Study

US beef industry's rampant overuse of antibiotics in livestock poses grave threat to public health: Study
(Getty Images)

Antibiotic resistance is a grave threat to public health. As resistance worsens, serious infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria are becoming harder and sometimes impossible to treat with antibiotics, say experts. The unnecessary use of medically important antibiotics, both in human medicine and in livestock production, is a critical driver of this crisis, says a new study that contends that the US beef industry, the world’s largest, is a key contributor to antibiotic overuse. An estimated 42% of all medically important antibiotics sold for use in US livestock operations are for cattle, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). 

Stating that antibiotic sales for meat and poultry production far outstrip sales for human use, the analysis says that US cattle producers consume antibiotics three to six times more intensively (on a per-animal-kilogram basis) than many of their European counterparts. And this disparity is likely to widen. “Routine antibiotic use is the norm on US feedlots, where they are added to the feed for entire herds of beef cattle, even when no animals are sick. The World Health Organization (WHO) discourages any routine antibiotic use in livestock. It considers this practice unnecessary and hazardous precisely because it contributes to expanding antibiotic resistance,” says Dr David Wallinga, senior health officer, NRDC, in the report.

“Antibiotic resistance undermines the efficacy of antibiotics, and therefore the ability to safely perform transplants, joint replacements, C-sections, dialysis, and other procedures requiring reliable drugs to treat the infections that often complicate them. People in the US experience at least 2.8 million infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, resulting in up to 162,044 deaths,” he adds.

The report says that properly cooked meat should not harbor resistant bacteria, but people can and do acquire resistance from beef that has been handled or cooked improperly. Government meat surveys conducted as part of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) show that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are found routinely on supermarket beef products, shows analysis. “While antibiotic overuse in livestock creates health risks for all of us, the people working in the meat industry face higher risks. Workers in frequent contact with food animals during slaughter or with the meat products derived from them, which the NARMS surveys revealed to be routinely contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, are themselves at risk for becoming colonized and/or infected with these bacteria. These workers also may unwittingly carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria home to their families,” the author writes. 

The beef industry

The US produced 26.9 billion pounds of beef in 2018, more than any other country in the world. In 2018, 33 million head of cattle were slaughtered in the US, of which 25 million were partially fattened or “finished” on feedlots, with the rest coming from dairies or elsewhere. According to the report, the US beef industry is dominated by “giant feedlots” in a handful of states and their largest customers have failed to take meaningful action on antibiotic overuse in beef. Over 70% of feedlot cattle are concentrated in just five central states — Nebraska, Texas, Kansas, Iowa, and Colorado.

Five states in the US contain more than 70% of feedlot beef cattle. (NRDC)


The four primary buyers of cattle from feedlots — Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods, and National Beef — control more than 80% of US beef meatpacking. “None of these four companies have established policies or implemented practices that would end routine antibiotic misuse and overuse on the feedlots where the cattle they buy are produced,” it explains.

The author also argues that there is little transparency or accountability in the beef industry regarding antibiotic use. The industry does not directly report on-farm or on-feedlot use of antibiotics, despite repeated recommendations over 15 years from the Government Accountability Office that antibiotic use in livestock production should be tracked more closely. “The public remains mostly in the dark about how the powerful US beef industry contributes to serious public health issues, including unsafe working conditions at meatpacking plants and the crisis in antibiotic resistance, and to climate change,” the findings state.

Overuse of antibiotics

Using a metric developed by the European Medicines Agency to compare antibiotic use in food-producing animals across animal populations in different countries, the report shows that US cattle producers used 162 milligrams (mg) of antibiotic per kilogram (kg) of livestock, compared with 50 mg/kg in the Netherlands, 41 mg/kg in France, 32 mg/kg in Denmark, and 27 mg/kg in the UK.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 13.3 million pounds of medically important antibiotics were sold for use in animal agriculture in 2018, vastly outstripping sales of the same drugs for use in human medicine. Cattle production accounted for 42% of such sales, roughly as much as were sold for pork and chicken production combined. After initially dropping from 2016 to 2017, sales of cattle antibiotics rose by more than 8% from 2017 to 2018. 

Intensity of antibiotic consumption in cattle consumption in the US (2018) versus other countries (2017). (NRDC)

The top two antibiotics used on cattle feedlots, tetracyclines and macrolides, account for about 74% of all antibiotics sold for use in the entirety of animal agriculture. “Both macrolides and tetracycline antibiotics are important to human medicine. Their overuse in cattle production has profound public health implications. Macrolides such as tylosin are considered “critically important” to humans, according to the FDA and WHO. They are medicines of choice for treating certain pneumonia, some strains of MRSA, and sexually transmitted diseases. Macrolides also are used, especially in pregnant women and children, to treat serious Campylobacter infections, typically contracted from eating contaminated meat or poultry,” says the report. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers tetracyclines to be among the most important antibiotics for treating potentially life-threatening infections due to gram-negative bacteria, which can cause urinary tract infections, meningitis, and sepsis. 

Current practices make cattle sick

The report emphasizes that cattle illnesses and deaths have risen in recent years, despite the industry's routine use of antibiotics to prevent them. Much of this antibiotic use occurs on large feedlots. Typical beef feedlot conditions include increasingly large herds, crowding, frequent movement of cattle, and diets high in grains and other concentrated sources of energy. These conditions can lead to illness, primarily liver abscesses and so-called shipping fever. “Such problems are not inherent in raising cattle per se but are created or exacerbated by the feedlot industry’s practices, which must change,” says the analysis. 

Typical beef feedlot conditions include increasingly large herds, crowding, frequent movement of cattle, and diets high in grains and other concentrated sources of energy(Getty Images)

The author says that the industry routinely gives antibiotics to entire feedlot herds whether or not cattle are ill. This is an “unnecessary practice” that also undermines the effectiveness of these drugs to treat human illness. “Behind the practice is an industry trying to offset heightened disease risks created by the crowded, stress-inducing, and often unsanitary conditions typical on many of its feedlots. With any routine antibiotic use, the bacteria best able to withstand the drug will inevitably survive and multiply, spreading antibiotic resistance. These bacteria may share the genes that make them drug-resistant with other dangerous bacteria, even those that may not have been directly exposed to antibiotics,” he warns.

Climate change, bringing higher temperatures, drought, and dust to the Great Plains, is also playing a role. It adds to the other stressors experienced by feedlot cattle, further reducing their immunity and increasing the risk of illness or death, explains Dr Wallinga. 

The way forward

The suite of non-antibiotic best practices to keep animals healthier are uncomplicated, says the study. The report recommends vaccinating cattle and utilizing other approved, nonantibiotic veterinary practices to prevent disease, and increasing the amount of roughage in feedlot diets to reduce the risk and incidence of liver abscesses. It calls for avoiding the purchase of calves from farms whose animals have a track record of experiencing more health problems in the feedlot setting. 

According to the study, in recent years, strong consumer demand for meat and poultry raised without the routine use of antibiotics has helped bring about a rapid change in the US chicken industry. “Based on data from an industry-funded report, we estimate that the use of medically important antibiotics by the US chicken industry dropped around 73% from 2013 to 2017,” it says. Dr Wallinga emphasizes that by demanding beef produced without routine medically important antibiotics, consumers can help transform the enormous US beef industry as well.  

The study argues that given the degree of consolidation in the US beef industry, action by only a few additional companies to reshape the use of antibiotics in feedlots could spur long-overdue changes across beef supply chains. “With combined annual revenue of more than $200 billion, Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods, and National Beef have the power to catalyze those changes; collectively they buy and slaughter 17 of every 20 head of cattle processed into beef in the US. Large beef buyers have little choice but to purchase directly or indirectly from one or more of these meatpackers,” says the report. 

The author says that the FDA, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other policymakers, “must stop caving in to industry pressure” and do more to combat the health threat from increasing antibiotic resistance. “Acknowledge the need to end all routine uses of medically important antibiotics — including for disease prevention — in food animal production generally, and specifically in beef production. As the lead US regulator, this falls to the FDA, which must also announce a timeline-bound plan to make it happen,” the study recommends.

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