Animal Antibiotics in Food Production: What to Know

cattle_antibioticsThe health of animals is very important to the farmers and ranchers who raise them, as well as the veterinarians who work with them. Despite this, animals may still become sick and require treatment, just like people.

If farm animals become sick, or are at risk of becoming sick, there are FDA-approved antibiotics available to farmers through livestock veterinarians to help control, prevent, and treat disease in farm animals.  The following are common questions and answers about the use of animal antibiotics in raising food animals.



Q:  Is there a safety concern with consuming foods from animals that were given antibiotics?

A:  No. The FDA has concluded that judicious use of approved antibiotics in animal agriculture does not pose a risk to animals or people.


Background: When animals are given antibiotics, there are very strict FDA regulations around how much time that must pass before meat or milk from a treated animal can enter the food supply. This period is monitored by a veterinarian and ensures there are no antibiotic residues in our meat or milk.  The FDA requires that all milk be tested for the presence of antibiotics when it arrives at the dairy processing plant. Any batch that tests positive is rejected by the plant.


In 2012, FDA recommended greater oversight of “in-feed medication” by veterinarians, to encourage use only when medically necessary. FDA is discontinuing the use of antibiotics for the purpose of growth promotion. These changes are not a reflection of the safety of these medications or the food from these animals, but to maintain these antibiotics’ effectiveness in people.


Q:  Who regulates antibiotics given to food-producing animals to ensure they are safe?

A: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA determines which antibiotics can be given to food-producing animals and how they should be given.


Background: Veterinarians and farmers work together to follow FDA guidelines, which encourage farmers and producers to use them only when needed and as prescribed by a veterinarian.

Q: Why are antibiotics used in food animals?

A: Antibiotics are used in animals for the same reasons they are used in humans—to prevent and treat illness and disease.

Background: Just like people, animals can become sick. When this happens, it is important to treat them and return them to good health, not only because it is the right thing to do for the animal, but because meat from sick animals could not be consumed. Without antibiotics, much more meat would likely be wasted due to an increase in sick animals.

The decision to give antibiotics to an animal is very similar to deciding to give them to people:  If one or several animals are showing signs of illness, the veterinarian will decide:

  1. Whether other animals in the herd or flock are at risk, and
  2. Which treatment(s) are best for them.

In many cases, the use of antibiotics can stop the spread of an infection so fewer animals become sick and need to be treated. Treating an illness before it spreads helps reduce the number of animals that suffer and potentially die from the illness.


Q:  Is the use of antibiotics in food animals causing a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria and so-called “super bugs”?

A:  No. Eating meat, milk, or eggs has not been found to increase the risk of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. 


Background: In fact, the majority of cases of antibiotic resistance in people, including those caused by “super bugs,” are mainly due to the use of antibiotics in people. According to the CDC, “there are currently no data to suggest that [resistant bacteria such as] MRSA can be transmitted from meat consumption or even meat handling.”   Antibiotic use in both humans and food animals is regulated to reduce the chances of bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics.


Q:  Should I buy “antibiotic free” meat to avoid contracting an antibiotic-resistant illness?

A: There is no reason to change your current purchasing habits out of concern about antibiotic-resistant illness.


Background: It is important to note that bacteria, including bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, can be found anywhere, on all types of farms, including those that do not use antibiotics. When animals enter the food chain, many steps are in place to reduce the presence of bacteria. However, it is possible that resistant bacteria could be present on meat. Therefore, proper cooking and handling is still the most critical step for reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses of any sort.


In addition, an independent panel of scientific experts reviewed the extensive research on antibiotic resistance and concluded that a person’s risk of contracting an antibiotic-resistant infection is more likely to come from their own personal use of antibiotics than from eating meat, milk, poultry, or eggs.


Q: What can I do at home to ensure the meat I cook and serve my family is safe to eat?

A: Practice safe food handling and preparation to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.


Background: No matter how it is grown or raised, bacteria are always present. However, we rarely become sick if we follow safe food handling practices such as cooking meat thoroughly and washing our hands and any surfaces that touched raw meet during meal preparation.


To reduce the risks of foodborne illness from all bacteria, including those that are resistant to antibiotics, practice safe food preparation: Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill handling.



Foods from animals previously treated with FDA-approved antibiotics are safe to eat. Scientist and regulators have concluded that the use of antibiotics in food animal production is safe. Animals are given antibiotics according to strict regulations and only as prescribed by a veterinarian. Concerns voiced in the media about antibiotic resistance and developmental effects are not based on the scientific research. You can continue to feel confident about the safety of meat, milk, poultry, and eggs as part of a healthful diet.