BEEF Editors' Blog

True Or False: Animal Agriculture Uses 80% Of All Antibiotics

Animal agriculture is often accused of misusing and overusing antibiotics. Is it true?

Earlier this week, BEEF Daily published an editorial in which I discussed several points I thought were worth considering when addressing antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and just who is responsible for creating them. One commenter quoted the oft-used figure that animal agriculture uses 80% of all antibiotics, and suggested we should cut back on our antibiotic use, particularly in growth promotion.

Is the commenter correct? Do we use 80% of all antibiotics, and are we overusing them or using them incorrectly? No. And yes. As I said in the editorial, antibiotic resistance is very complicated, which makes understanding the gulf between the “no” and the “yes” difficult yet critical if we’re to have an honest and ultimately successful conversation about antibiotic resistance.

The principal problem is that the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) figures on antibiotics are based on overall sales, not on use. While FDA is in the very early stages of addressing that problem, those are the only figures we have to work with at present. And sales figures tell you nothing about use or dosages.

When my doctor prescribes an antibiotic for me, he writes the prescription for an adult. When he prescribes an antibiotic for a child, he adjusts the dosage accordingly. I’m heavier than that child, and therefore need a considerably higher dose of antibiotic to treat my condition.

Likewise, when you treat a 1,300-lb. cow, you read the label and meter out the correct amount of antibiotic. Your cow weighs six times what I weigh, and 26 times what a 50-lb. child weighs; therefore, you will use considerably more antibiotic to treat her infection than is used to treat me.

The example above considers therapeutic use, which of course is only part of the debate. And the above example assumes you’re treating your cow with the same antibiotic that my doctor uses to treat me. And that’s where the 80% figure becomes confusing. 

Consider these numbers from the FDA report titled “Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals,” as discussed by Richard Raymond, an MD and former USDA under-secretary for food safety:

According to Raymond, ionophores account for 30% of the total amount of antibiotics sold and distributed in the U.S. Ionophores are only used in food animals; in fact, Raymond says if you use an ionophore to treat humans, it will make them very sick. Tetracyclines used in 2010 accounted for 41.5%, he says. Then there’s a list of drugs FDA is unable, by law, to report individually because it would disclose individual drug company information. That list totals 12% of all antibiotics, Raymond says, 10% of which are used exclusively in animal medicine.

“So 30% are ionophores and 10% are in the ‘not individually reported’ category and not used in human medicine,” Raymond says. Add 42% tetracyclines, and you now have 82% of all antibiotics used in animal medicine.

Raymond includes tetracyclines, which are also used in human medicine, because he says they’re not used much in human medicine, even though FDA considers them important in human medicine. Others disagree. Beyond that, Mike Apley, BEEF columnist and clinical veterinary pharmacologist at Kansas State University, says they’re an important part of the discussion because of the co-resistance problem.

The resistance genes for tetracyclines (about 1,200 identified to date, with three known mechanisms and one unknown mechanism) are often found on plasmids linked to the resistance genes for other compounds. So the use of tetracyclines may be linked to selection for resistance to other antibiotics as well, Apley says. He argues that animal agriculture bears the burden of confirming that in-feed and in-water use of tetracyclines are actually returning a benefit to animal health.

Thus, Apley says my argument that whether or not an antibiotic is used or not used in both human health and animal agriculture, at least where tetracyclines are concerned, is also short-sighted and misleading. I told you this was complicated.

So, with that in mind, consider this: Including tetracyclines in the discussion, it’s the remaining 18% where the conversation should focus, Raymond says. Carve out the tetracyclines, and the number jumps to 60%. Using the 18% figure, the main overlap is in macrolides, which are the drugs of choice in human medicine for treating campylobacter. While macrolides are used in cattle, most use in animal agriculture is in poultry and swine production.


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“The debate about the amount sold or used is just diversionary,” Raymond says. “It’s not the main issue in the public health debate about antibiotic resistance. The real issues are the judicious use of antimicrobials and is there a significant impact on human health?”

Apley agrees. “I accept that antimicrobial use in food animals can alter (antibiotic) susceptibility profiles (in pathogens),” he says. “But I also accept that there are multiple safe uses in agriculture for which the benefits far outweigh any risk. Our challenge in this conversation is to figure out which is which.”

For more on this topic, visit these resources:


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Discuss this Blog Entry 13

John R. Dykers, Jr (not verified)
on Dec 13, 2013

I repeat that the crucial part of the paradigm for the prevention of resistance is the DURATION of treatment with antibiotics more than (not instead of) the frequency.
This presents a problem for animal agriculture when we put antibiotics in feed for weeks to "prevent" illness, and we have to face up to this reality. Long term, low dose antibiotic use is ideal condition for the emergence of resistant bacteria.
John R. Dykers, Jr. MD

on Feb 27, 2015

Many opinions voiced on this page. I'll go with what the data driven peer-reviewed scientific conclusions say, that overuse of antibiotics in food animals is leading to drug resistant bacterial strains and is a threat to human health. Prophylactic administration of antibiotics should be illegal. Higher profits do not justify continuation of this practice.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 15, 2013

Don't catch a lot of news with the busy farm schedule the 80%figure was used both on cbs morning and Fox News the last two days the md "experts" basically said stop eating red meat or if you do only organic. We need more study before market share is forever lost and an effective honest counter message. Often feet and eye problems are the reason for ctc usage in grazing we need alternatives to medicated mineral treatment/ prevention.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 16, 2013

Is there a difference between the antimicrobials used as in the quote by Dr. Raymond in above story, and those antimicrobials used in various soaps with claims of killing bacteria on our skin and in our homes?

Those antibacterial soaps are in the news today, being at the least suggested as a problem in resistance for humans.

Also, are the antibiotics in post by Dr. Dykers above the same as used for humans?

Yes, it is a VERY complicated situation, very difficult to sort the political hype from the facts by those of us who sometimes need to use antibiotics to treat our animals.

Cost of using antibiotics in raising cattle, a very low rate of return business, at best, is of no small concern. That fact seems to be lost on those accusing ranchers of over-use and abuse of antibiotics!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 18, 2013

I seen on Fox News last Sunday two doctors say to definitely stay away from red meat,because of the antibioctics used in our cattle. It ruffled my dander. We only treat our calves for blackleg and when we wean we give appropriate shot for pneumonia. I don't know all the the technical issues but we ranchers I believe do a great job in providing a safe product for our food supply.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 18, 2013

How many of us are feeding Rumension, that is an antibiotic so when the 80% figure is used be careful how you defend it.

on Dec 18, 2013

Rumensin (monensin) is an ionophore, so it goes into that large bucket of antibiotics that have no impact on human medicine. Bovatec (lasalocid) is another ionophore that is used in cattle production.

Burt Rutherford

Ronald Welsh (not verified)
on Dec 18, 2013

While I agree with Dr. Dykers comments that the use of prophylactic antibiotics may be of questionable efficiency, I do not believe that this is a major contributor to antibiotic resistant bacteria in man. Personally, my belief is that under dosage of antibiotics when needed in human infections is a more important cause of antibiotic resistant bacteria in man.
and thinking like Louis Slaughter in Washington, D.C. is of more harm to public health than semi-truck loads of antimicrobials in animal feeds.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 18, 2013

I am a UK based reader. We have our own vociferous but ill-informed lobby in this country. However we also have a new UK Five year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy 2013-18, produced by our Departments of Human Health and Agriculture, which for the first time importantly states, “Increasing scientific evidence suggests that the clinical issues with antimicrobial resistance that we face in human medicine are primarily the result of antibiotic use in people, rather than the use of antibiotics in animals.” Hurrah!

Don Cobb DVM (not verified)
on Dec 18, 2013

The director of the CDC openly stated that over use and misuse in humans is the leading cause of resistance.Evidence shows bacteria 300 years old isolated from the Greenland ice cap and bacteria over 90 years old from Antaritica both resistant.This issue is far more complex and scientific facts are being ignored in favor of sensationalizing the issue.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 18, 2013

What about all the antibacterial soaps? Do they create resistance?

on Dec 20, 2013

That's a very timely question. Earlier this week, in fact, FDA asked the very same thing when it gave manufacturers a year to prove that "antibacterial" soaps and other products actually do any good. Here's a link to a FDA info sheet:

In the Internet noodling I've done, there are studies that indicate antibacterial soaps don't cause resistance and studies that do. However, there is a great deal of concern within the scientific community and a general consensus that in healthy households, antibacterial soap products are not needed.

The concern is two-fold; that bacteria can become resistant to the antimicrobial chemical in the soaps, and that there can be cross-resistance that develops with antibiotic drugs. There is research that suggests both are happening.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not implicated because the alcohol kills bacteria quickly and effectively, then evaporates. However, scientific thinking appears to hold that antibacterial soaps are at best not necessary and at worst a potential cause of resistance.

Burt Rutherford

Update--Charlie Powell, the public information officer with the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, provides this link that further explains FDA's thinking on antibacterial handsoap:


on Feb 28, 2014

It seems like business interests always trump public health. All the chemicals we are exposed to every's like we're the lab rats being tested on, except nobody's paying attention to the results. The FDA, however, will be limiting some of this practice in an effort to keep human antibiotic resistance from growing. Read:

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What's BEEF Editors' Blog?

Everyday musings from BEEF Editors on the latest beef industry news and events.


Burt Rutherford

Burt has more than 35 years of experience communicating about beef industry issues. A Colorado native and graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural journalism, he now works...

Wes Ishmael

Among the industry’s most insightful thinkers, Wes Ishmael concentrates on industry price and market perspectives for BEEF magazine. Along with his monthly “Cattle Economics” column...

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