Maybe you’ve read or heard that 70% to 80% of the antibiotics sold in our country are given to farm animals. It’s a percentage that is often repeated by the media and by activist groups.

However, that number is almost a decade out of date and based on confusing data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), says Dr. Kristin Obbink, assistant director of the National Institute of Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education based at Iowa State University in Ames.

Since 2009, the FDA has released an annual report of sales and distribution of antimicrobials sold or distributed to food-producing animals.

The report only collects data on sales, not on actual usage. For example, veterinarians and animal producers may purchase drugs, but never actually administer them to animals.

In addition, in both human and animal medicine, antibiotics are administered by weight. So it takes more antibiotics, on a per pound basis, to treat a 2,000-pound cow than a 150-pound human.

Plus, there are many more farm animals than humans. For instance, there are approximately 327 million people in the United States, compared to about 9.1 billion chickens raised on U.S. farms.

“So it’s not apples to apples. You can’t just take the (FDA) numbers and compare them directly. You have to consider the caveats that go along with it,” Obbink says.

Since 2015, sales and distribution of medically important antimicrobials for food-producing animals have dropped 38%, according to the FDA.

Obbink adds that farmers and veterinarians don’t just want to see a decrease in sales of antibiotics. Instead, they are focused on the whole picture, she says.

“We want to prevent disease in the first place. We are doing a lot of research on antibiotic alternatives. We make sure to implement good vaccine protocols for animals and practice good farm biosecurity, so helping animals stay healthy in the first place,” Obbink says.

Return to The Iowa Dish