Antibiotic Use in Pig Farming

Antibiotics are an important part of a comprehensive herd-health program on farms of all sizes. We take many steps to protect herd health, and judicious use of antibiotics is one part of an overall herd health management plan.  Antibiotics represent considerable cost to farmers, so we naturally want to minimize their use whenever possible. Responsible antibiotic use, combined with other practices relating to proper diet and nutrition, access to fresh water, vaccinations, barn sanitation and biosecurity, all work to protect pig health. Farmers support science-based approaches to ensure that antibiotics used to advance animal health are safe for the food supply.

Principles of responsible antibiotic use, farmers’ guidelines

Principle I: Take appropriate steps to decrease the need for the application of antibiotics.
Principle II: Assess the advantages and disadvantages of all uses of antibiotics.
Principle III: Use antibiotics only when they provide measurable benefits.
Principle IV: Fully implement the management practices described for responsible use of animal health products into daily operations.
Principle V: Have a working veterinarian-client-patient relationship and follow the responsible antibiotic use guidelines.

During the decades antibiotics have been used in food animals, there has been no proven link to antibiotic treatment failure in humans.

Is it safe to use antibiotics in food animals?

In collaboration with animal agriculture experts, veterinarians and scientists, farmers provide for the comprehensive health needs of their animals. There is no question that animal health is vital to food and public safety. Accordingly, responsible use of animal health products, including antibiotics, is a key concern for every person involved in producing pork for consumers.

Antibiotic policies should be based on facts, not misinformation

Human and animal health experts agree it is important to use food production practices that minimize the development of antibiotic resistance in human health. The topic of antibiotic resistance is complex, and certain facts must be established in order to have a productive dialogue about issues concerning antibiotic use. For example:

  • The majority of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) clinical infections in humans are due to human (vs. livestock) strains of MRSA, yet many people unfairly blame agriculture for the prevalence of MRSA in humans. To date, no clinical case of MRSA in a human has been conclusively linked to livestock in the United States.
  • Not all antibiotics are the same. Some are used in both people and animals. Some are used primarily in animals and are not medically important to people — and are not contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that is potentially harmful to public health. Of the antibiotics used in farm animals today, about one-third are called ionophores. Ionophores are not medically important; nor are they used in humans.
  • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be foodborne or nonfoodborne. Nonfoodborne strains began emerging decades ago in hospital settings and are not linked to animals in our food system. These cases represent the vast majority that are hard to treat.
  • Foodborne illness and antibiotic-resistant bacteria can cause human health problems; however, proper cooking and handling of food can eliminate the risk from bacteria (such as Salmonella). In the rare instances when people become ill from antibiotic-resistant foodborne bacteria, they can almost always be treated successfully.

Regulations ensure antibiotics for food animals are safe

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible not only for regulation of human pharmaceuticals but also for most animal health products and medicated animal feeds. Before an antibiotic is approved for use, the FDA requires it meet rigorous standards to protect the safety of animals, people and the environment. This approval process is the first of multiple steps to ensure the safety of food that comes from animals treated with antibiotics. FDA policies regarding antibiotic use in farm animals are periodically updated based on emerging scientific evidence. For example:

  • Within three to four years, antibiotics important to human medicine will not be permitted to be administered to food animals for the purposes of growth promotion.1
  • The FDA has issued a limit on the total sales of antibiotics critical to human medicine, such as fluoroquinolone and cephalosporin, to the food animal industry.

Pig farmers work closely with veterinarians regarding decisions about antibiotic use. They have a natural incentive to take preventive health measures to avoid the time, labor and expense necessary for administering antibiotics to their herds. Farmers want to provide such health products only when pigs are most susceptible to illness or when they are sick.

Farmers work closely with the USDA

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) monitors and tests meat to ensure no unsafe antibiotic residues enter the food supply. The FDA does not approve the use of antibiotics until they undergo a rigorous review to safeguard animals, humans and the environment. The FDA approval process is the first of multiple steps to ensure food products from animals treated with antibiotics are safe. Farmers work closely with veterinarians to decide which antibiotics to use. The federal FSIS takes samples from meat to verify there are no unsafe antibiotic or other residues. There is a withdrawal time between when an animal is treated with antibiotics and when it goes to market for sale. Extensive testing ensures meat sold to consumers is free of violative antibiotic residue.

We believe responsible use of antibiotics is essential not only to animal health and well-being but also to public health and the safety of the food chain. Decisions affecting antibiotic usage should be based on sound science and what is best for animal and human health. We are committed to protecting public health and preserving animal health and well-being by using antibiotics responsibly. Farmers support the responsible use of antibiotics to maintain herd health and seek to improve practices based on scientifically sound information and ongoing research.

Consumer safety is important

During the decades antibiotics have been used in food animals, there has been no proven link to antibiotic treatment failure in humans. Specifically, the probability of treatment failure has been shown to be less than 1 in 10 million and less than 1 in 3 billion for foodborne illness in humans due to Campylobacter spp. and E. faecium.2

modern pig farming, hog farming, antibiotics pork
Farmers, with veterinary oversight, choose to use antibiotics to care for their pigs when necessary.

Are organic meats safer?

Consumer demand for organic foods has grown steadily since the coining of the term by J.I. Rodale, a Pennsylvania farmer, author and publisher, in 1942. Numerous food manufacturers develop and market organic processed products, and several retail markets specialize in the sale of “organic” products to today’s consumers.

The pork industry includes farmers who choose to use different farming methods, including those who raise pigs organically. As farmers, we enjoy the freedom of raising pigs in the manor we feel provides the public with the highest-quality product. We embrace the pork industry’s support for providing consumers with various product options every day at the grocery store.

As it pertains to raising pigs organically, there is no scientific evidence that nutritional and safety profiles of organic meats are different from conventionally raised meat products. Only growing, handling and processing methods differ. In late 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study3 concluding organic produce has lower levels of pesticides and is less likely to be contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria. However, researchers concluded, “The most important thing for children is to eat a wide variety of produce, whether it’s conventional or organic.”

Additional resources
U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service
National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS)
National Pork Producers Council
Video: Antibiotic Use on Farms Revealed 
Video: Uncover Antibiotic Use in Pork Production
Facts on Antibiotic Use from USFRA
Q&A on Antibiotic Use
The Danish Experience
What Consumers Should Know About MRSA
FDA Efforts to Address Antimicrobial Resistance

Pork Checkoff Research
For information on antimicrobial resistance, read objective, independent research based on pig farming priorities. The National Pork Board does not have control over the outcome of the research nor does it have editorial review of research reports, the content of which belongs to the authors.

1FDA Guidance 209 and 213, issued December 2013.

2Hurd S. et al. Public Health Consequences of Macrolide Use in Food Animals: A Deterministic Risk Assessment. J Food Protection 67 (2004): 980-992.

3American Academy of Pediatrics, "Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages."