So, educating people about overuse of antibiotics in factory farming, not to mention the whole idea of factory farming, has been one of my pet projects for ages. A few selected quotes for you from the Union of Concerned Scientists FAQ on this topic:
Are antibiotics used in animal agriculture only when animals are sick?
No. Like people, animals occasionally get sick and animals with bacterial infections are often treated with antibiotics. But among U.S. livestock, it's actually healthy animals -- not sick ones -- that receive the lion's share of the drugs. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70% of antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to healthy pigs, cows, and chickens to promote growth and prevent disease (the term "antibiotic" is used here in the general sense, to include antibiotics and functionally similar compounds).
70% of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to healthy livestock. Just thought I'd point that one out. Also, fish farmers use antibiotics. And the farms that raise those cute little pet turtles, but you can look for the links yourself.
Does the use of antibiotics in agriculture have any connection to infections that are resistant to antibiotics in people?
Yes. While agricultural use of antibiotics may not be the greatest contributor to antibiotic-resistant infections in people, it is significant. The American Medical Association has adopted a formal resolution opposing the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics (i.e., their use in healthy animals). Other expert groups, including the American Public Health Association, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, and the American College of Preventive Medicine, have taken similar stances. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers animal use of antibiotics, for example, to be the major cause of foodborne illnesses that resist treatment with antibiotics. The World Health Organization has called for an end to the growth promoting uses of animal antibiotics important to human medicine.
Here's just one study. And you just thought you knew why you need to hold your breath downwind of a hog farm.
Should we defer action to reduce antibiotic overuse until we have more studies linking agricultural use of antibiotics to problems in human medicine?
No. There is overwhelming evidence that drug resistance is developing in bacteria as a result of use of antibiotics in animal systems. Further studies will only continue to confirm the link between antibiotic use in agriculture and the emergence of resistant bacteria and difficult-to-treat disease. Waiting for studies or better monitoring should not become an excuse for inaction. Resistance is worsening in the interim. The responsible course is to act now.
Or, you could just be a professional doubter and get written up in Slate.
Is it possible to produce the huge amount of meat necessary in this country without using antibiotics?
Yes. Animal production levels have not been affected in European countries that have banned the use of antibiotics in healthy animals. And, many European farming operations are large-scale, just as they are in the U.S. Broiler production has more than doubled in Sweden since the ban was first put into place. Also, a growing number of U.S. companies are successfully producing meat products without the routine use of antibiotics.
Don't we need antibiotics in agriculture to reduce animal waste?
No. Some in the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries claim that if antibiotics are reduced in animal agriculture, the amount of feed needed for animals to reach market weight will increase and as a result so will the manure output from food animal production. This perspective ignores the fact that the problem with livestock manure is not the total amount of manure produced but its concentration and handling. Manure itself is a valuable resource as fertilizer. Only when it is restricted to relatively small areas does manure become a waste problem and potential environmental contaminant.
The huge amount of manure coming from industrial animal factories has become an enormous environmental issue. Resistant bacteria, seeping from the manure lagoons into underlying groundwater supplies and running off into surface water, are potentially placing drinking water at risk. But the solutions to the manure problem are dispersal of animal production facilities and better treatment methods -- not continued dependence on antibiotics.
We can probably convince farmers to quit using antibiotics in animal feed [as part-owner of a farm, I can assure you that any chance to buy fewer chemicals is welcomed] and consumers would probably be happy to buy antibiotic-free animal products [especially if you say you're doing this to reserve the use of antibiotics for humans] but Big Pharma is gonna have a cow, man.