Stop the overuse of antibiotics on industrial farms

One estimate says 160,000 Americans die every year from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that the widespread overuse of antibiotics on indsutrial farms is making them less effective. Without leadership from Washington, D.C., we need restaurant chains and state governments to take action to address this public health threat.


If you are like most Americans, you or someone in your family has been prescribed antibiotics to treat an illness. Maybe it was a simple ear infection, or strep throat. Or maybe it was something potentially life-threatening, like pneumonia or a post-surgery infection.  

We assume that when we get an infectious illness the antibiotics our doctors prescribe for us will make us better. But what if they didn’t? Medical experts, including the World Health Organization (WHO), are warning that if we don’t stop the overuse of antibiotics, they could stop working — with potentially grave consequences for public health.

Each year in the United States, antibiotic-resistant infections already sicken millions and kill 160,000 people. Some experts are predicting that by 2050, these infections could kill more people worldwide than cancer does today, and recently a Nevada woman died of an infection resistant to every antibiotic available in the United States.

ANTIBIOTICS ARE CRUCIAL TO MODERN MEDICINE — Antibiotics and similar drugs have been used for the last 70 years to treat patients who have infectious diseases. Since the 1940s, these drugs have greatly reduced illness and death from infectious diseases.


Despite these warnings, many factory farms are giving antibiotics to healthy livestock on a routine basis. Why? Crowded and unsanitary conditions, along with other practices used on factory farms, can put animals’ health at risk. 

But instead of treating sick animals with antibiotics when they get an infection, many farming operations just distribute antibiotics to all of their animals as a preventative measure

Now, nearly two thirds of all medically important antibiotics in the United States are sold for use in livestock and poultry

Antibiotics are meant to be given in precise doses to treat specific types of infections. When they are used on a routine, or regular basis by farming operations, it increases the likelihood that bacteria resistant to the antibiotics will grow and spread, and our life-saving medicines won't work.


The calls for action from the public health community are growing louder, and more urgent. For instance, World Health Organization officials have said: "Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill." 

In November 2017, the WHO released new guidelines on antibiotic use in the meat industry, noting, "The world urgently needs to change the way it prescribes and uses antibiotics. Even if new medicines are developed, without behaviour change, antibiotic resistance will remain a major threat."

Doctors are also overwhelmingly concerned. In a poll released by U.S. PIRG and Consumer Reports, 93 percent of doctors polled said they were concerned about the practice of using antibiotics on healthy animals for growth promotion and disease prevention. In addition, 85 percent of doctors polled said that in the last year, one or more of their patients had a presumed or confirmed case of a drug-resistant infection

40,000 EXPERTS ECHO OUR CALLDr. Lance Price is one of more than 40,000 doctors and public health experts who have joined our campaign to stop the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the authority to regulate how antibiotics should be used. But so far their proposed rules have been weak, and don’t do nearly enough to curb overuse, especially in agriculture. We'll continue to advocate for strong federal action, but with the current administration unlikely to act any time soon, we’re not waiting around until they do. 

So U.S. PIRG is organizing the public to push for change. We’ve collected more than 300,000 petition signatures from citizens and families, built a coalition of more than 40,000 doctors and members of the medical community, and enlisted the support of farmers who raise their livestock without misusing antibiotics.

Large farming operations and the drug industry have resisted change, and have so far blocked efforts in Congress and from government agencies. That’s why we've been working to convince big restaurants and states to pressure these farms to change their practices.

BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE — Without leadership from Washington, D.C., we need restaurant chains and state governments to take action to address this public health threat.


In 2015, we helped convince McDonald’s to stop serving chicken raised on our life-saving medicines. Shortly after, Tyson Foods, a major chicken producer and McDonald's supplier, followed suit. Then we convinced Subway, with more restaurants than any other chain in the United States, to make a commitment to stop serving any meat raised on antibiotics. We also helped move KFC, one of the country’s largest chicken restaurants, to eliminate antibiotics from their supply chain. 

The result? The majority of the U.S. chicken industry is no longer misusing antibiotics.

With thousands of Americans dying, and millions more getting sick from antibiotic-resistant infections every year, it's time for more chains to take action to reduce antibiotic use across all of their meat supplies, not just chicken. 


Without leadership from Washington, D.C., we also need to make change happen in the states. Already, California and Maryland have passed laws banning the routine use of medically important antibiotics on farms that operate in those states. We’re running a coordinated campaign to stop the overuse of antibiotics in more states.

This will not only increase the amount of the meat raised without the routine use of life-saving medicines, but will put increased pressure on the FDA and other federal decision-makers to pass strong national policies to protect public health. 

The choice is clear: We shouldn’t tolerate the misuse and overuse of our precious life-saving medicines just so we can make burgers a little cheaper. We can’t risk the health of our children, or a future in which common infections that were once easily treatable are again life-threatening. What happens next is up to us.

Issue updates

Blog Post | Public Health, Antibiotics

If It Looks Like a Chicken and Walks Like a Chicken | Steve Blackledge

Earlier this week, Tyson Foods announced another big step toward stopping the overuse of antibiotics on industrial farms. The announcement underscores a larger trend that’s been happening for a few years now; consumer pressure is helping to drive important public health changes in the marketplace. To be sure, there are laggards on the antibiotics front (see our recent blog on KFC), but perhaps no company has lagged as aggressively and proudly as Sanderson Farms. 

> Keep Reading


News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

In an article published Friday, Reuters reported that Leslie Samuelrich, who Carl Icahn recently nominated to McDonald’s board of directors, ‘is concerned McDonald’s has not followed through’ on its 2018 commitment to establish targets for reducing the use of medically important antibiotics in its beef supply chain. 

News Release | US PIRG Education Fund

A broad coalition of public health, animal welfare and food safety groups sent McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski more than 25,000 petition signatures today urging the company to fulfill its 2018 promise to set targets for reducing the use of medically important antibiotics throughout its global beef supply chain.

News Release

U.S. PIRG Education Fund is launching the Coalition to Preserve Antibiotics after a recent report in the esteemed medical journal The Lancet noted that antibiotic resistant infections killed at least 1.27 million people around the world in 2019. 

News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

More than 130 medical professionals organized by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund sent a letter to McDonald’s Thursday urging the company to meet its 2018 commitment to reduce antibiotic use in its beef supply chain. The coalition delivered the letter at the start of World Antibiotic Awareness Week to stress the urgency of taking action to stop overusing our life-saving medicines in agriculture. Otherwise, the drugs may no longer heal sick people. 

News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

 PIRG Education Fund is calling on McDonald’s, the single largest purchaser of beef in the United States, to fulfill its commitment to reduce antibiotic use in its beef supply chain. 

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