Feed Bites

Setting the Record Straight on Antibiotics

Written by: Guest   |   December 18, 2019

Antibiotics, Ensuring a stable food supply

Jessica Meisinger, Ph.D., Merck Animal Health

Many of the questions I’m asked in my role with the Merck Animal Health Veterinary and Consumer Affairs team are about antibiotics. It’s easy for those of us in the agriculture industry to forget just how many people in the United States aren’t involved in agriculture and often the opinions they form are based on information they hear on the news. Most of the time, people just want the same few questions answered.

Why does a farmer give their animal antibiotics? Even with the best preventive care programs in place, animals get sick just like people get sick – it’s part of nature. For example, lactating dairy cows can get mastitis just like breastfeeding human moms. It doesn’t mean that the barn is dirty or they weren’t well cared for.  

What would happen if they didn’t or couldn’t give their animals antibiotics? Antibiotics are an important tool for treating sick animals. Without antibiotics for treatment, the animal would remain sick, potentially infect more animals, suffer through the symptoms of their illness and potentially die.  This is an animal welfare issue and isn’t acceptable. Sick animals are also not sustainable animals. 

Do the meat/milk/eggs I buy at the store have antibiotics in it? No. Antibiotics are thoroughly researched and approved by the Food and Drug Administration. When an animal is given an antibiotic there is a “withdrawal period” set by the FDA to make sure the antibiotic has left the animal’s body before it enters the food supply.

Jessica Meisinger, Ph.D., with Merck Animal Health.

I’ve heard that 80% of the antibiotics in the U.S. are used in animals. How do you explain that? It’s important to put that number into context so it makes more sense. First, it’s vital to recognize that there are far more animals in the U.S. than there are people. In fact, there are over 323 million people in the U.S., but there are 9.3 billion cows, pigs, turkeys and chickens1234. To that, we also need to add other farm animals like sheep, goats and fish, as well as companion animals like dogs, cats and horses, which are included in the 80% statistic. When you add everything up and compare the number of animals to humans, 80% makes more sense. Antibiotics are used in animals to treat, prevent and control disease, and their responsible use is strictly regulated.

What about antibiotics on organic farms? “No antibiotics ever” policies are easier for a large farm to handle than a small farm. Large farms often have multiple places they are selling their meat, milk or eggs and they can move an animal who had to be treated with antibiotics to a conventional program. A small farmer might not have the same ability—if they have a dairy cow that should be treated with antibiotics, they might have no way to sell the milk that she produces even after she recovers and goes through a withdrawal period. They may be forced to make decisions for their sick animal based on economic realities instead of the well-being of the animal, which is not conducive to good animal welfare.

Merck Animal Health is committed to working with stakeholders to promote antimicrobial stewardship (AMS)—the appropriate use of antimicrobials—through education, implementation, research and advocacy initiatives across both human and animal health.

For more information on these and other topics visit the Merck Animal Health Veterinary and Consumer Affairs website.

1.  United States Department of Agriculture. National Agricultural Statistics Service. Agriculture Counts. Livestock Slaughter 2016 Summary. ISSN 0499-0544. April 2017. Accessed February 14, 2018. 

2.  American Meat Institute. The Facts About Antibiotics in Livestock & Poultry Production. Sort fact from fiction. https://www.meatinstitute.org/index.php?ht=a/ GetDocumentAction/i/99943. Accessed August 15, 2017.

3.  United States Department of Agriculture. National Agricultural Statistics Service. Agriculture Counts. Poultry Slaughter 2016 Summary. ISSN: 2159-7480. February 2017. Accessed February 14, 2018. 

4.  FDA. U.S. Food & Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine. 2016 Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals. December, 2017. Accessed February 14, 2018.


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