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Antibiotic Use in Food-Producing Animals

Tracking and Reducing the Public Health Impact

Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food-producing animals can have a negative impact on public health.


Antibiotics must be used judiciously in humans and animals because both uses contribute to the emergence, persistence, and spread of resistant bacteria. Resistant bacteria in food-producing animals are of particular concern. Food animals serve as a reservoir of resistant pathogens and resistance mechanisms that can directly or indirectly result in antibiotic resistant infections in humans.  For example, resistant bacteria may be transmitted to humans through the foods we eat.

  • Some bacteria have become resistant to more than one type of antibiotic, which makes it more difficult to treat the infections they cause.
  •  Preserving the effectiveness of antibiotic drugs is vital to protecting human and animal health.

Public Health Impact of Antibiotic Use in Food-Producing Animals

Antibiotics are widely used in food-producing animals. This use contributes to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food-producing animals. These resistant bacteria can contaminate the foods that come from those animals, and persons who consume these foods can develop antibiotic-resistant infections.

Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food-producing animals can have a negative impact on public health through the following sequence of events:

  • Use of antibiotics in food-producing animals allows antibiotic-resistant bacteria to thrive while susceptible bacteria are suppressed or die;
  • Resistant bacteria can be transmitted from food-producing animals to humans through the food supply;
  • Resistant bacteria can cause infections in humans; and
  • Infections caused by resistant bacteria can result in adverse human health consequences.

Because of the link between antibiotic use in food-producing animals and the occurrence of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, CDC encourages and supports efforts to minimize inappropriate use of antibiotics in humans and animals.

  • CDC supports the strategy of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to promote the judicious use of antibiotics that are important in treating humans.
    • This strategy recommends that such antibiotics should be used in food-producing animals only under veterinary oversight and only to address animal health needs, not to promote growth.
    • CDC supports FDA’s plan to implement draft guidance in 2013 that will operationalize this strategy.
  • Learn more about antibiotic resistance as a worldwide problem [PDF - 114 pages, 5.24 MB] in the Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013 report.

Tracking Antibiotic Resistance in Infections that are often Foodborne

Man and Women lab workers looking at petri dish

In 1996, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) was established as a collaboration among CDC, FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and state and local public health departments. This national public health surveillance system tracks antibiotic resistance among Salmonella, Campylobacter, and other bacteria transmitted commonly through food. NARMS tests bacteria from humans (CDC), retail meats (FDA), and food-producing animals (USDA) in the United States. The CDC reference laboratory conducts antibiotic susceptibility testing on isolates from sporadic cases and outbreaks of illness and confirms and studies bacteria with new antibiotic resistance patterns.

The primary objectives of the NARMS program are to:

  • Monitor trends in antibiotic resistance among enteric bacteria from humans, retail meats, and food-producing animals;
  • Disseminate information on antibiotic resistance to promote interventions that reduce resistance among foodborne bacteria;
  • Conduct research to better understand the emergence, persistence, and spread of antibiotic resistance; and
  • Provide data that assist the FDA in making decisions about approving safe and effective antibiotic drugs for animals.

NARMS provides information about patterns of emerging resistance among foodborne pathogens to stakeholders, including federal regulatory agencies, policymakers, consumer advocacy groups, industry, and the public, to guide public health prevention and policy efforts that protect people from resistant infections.

FDA Regulates Antibiotics

FDA regulates antibiotics intended for use in humans or in animals. In food-producing animals, FDA-approved uses of antibiotics include:

  • Disease treatment for animals that are sick;
  • Disease control for a group of animals when some of the animals are sick;
  • Disease prevention for a group of healthy animals that are at risk of becoming sick; and
  • Growth promotion or increased feed efficiency in a herd or flock of animals to promote weight gain.

Since 2003, FDA has evaluated the potential human health impact of using antibiotics in food-producing animals as part of the animal drug approval process, using information and analyses from CDC and others.
FDA has provided guidance that reinforces the judicious use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, recommending that antibiotics important for human health be limited to uses in food-producing animals that:

  • Are necessary to assure animal health; and
  • Involve veterinary oversight or consultation.

Everyone Has a Role to Play

Antibiotic resistance is an important public health issue that requires coordinated action in both human and animal medicine. Preventing human infections with resistant bacteria that come from the food supply requires a multifaceted approach by many stakeholders. Together, we must:

  • Prevent and control the spread of disease-causing bacteria carried by food-producing animals;
  • Identify control points that can restrict the transfer via food, soil, and water of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from agricultural settings;
  • Develop better diagnostic tools to detect resistance rapidly and accurately;
  • Detect and respond to changes in resistance;
  • Increase our understanding of which antibiotic uses in food-producing animals contribute most to the development and persistence of antibiotic resistance in bacteria;
  • Investigate the health impact of resistant infections in humans; and
  • Promote judicious use of antibiotics to extend their useful life.