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We might have bigger problems than fighting that cough. A new report reveals that the same antibiotics prescribed to cure sick people are also being fed to healthy animals destined for human consumption. But pumping livestock full of antibiotics isn’t doing any of us any favors. Instead, the practice is contributing to the development of “superbugs,” or bacteria that are immune to treatment, which are making human infections harder and more expensive to treat.

What’s the Deal?

The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public policy, has created an infographic comparing human use of antibiotics to treat illness with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) latest data on antibiotics sold or distributed for use in animals. The graphic reveals that human antibiotic use has leveled off at below eight billion pounds a year. Meanwhile, meat and poultry farms have been using up record numbers of the stuff each year — reaching a new high of almost 29.9 billion pounds in 2011.

In fact, the use of antibiotics in livestock may be expanding at a greater rate than the meat industry itself. While the American Meat Institute reported a 0.2 percent increase in meat and poultry production in 2011 compared to 2010, antibiotic consumption jumped 2 percent over the same time period — suggesting meat production might berelying more heavily on antibiotics. All told, the livestock industry now uses nearly four-fifths of the antibiotics administered in the U.S.

Why It Matters

Antibiotics are typically administered to livestock in attempts to make them grow faster and to compensate for the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions typical of factory farms. But here’s the rub: When animals are crammed together and regularly dosed with antibiotics, the bacteria living on and in the animals can gradually begin to develop resistance to the drugs. These resistant strains can easily pass to humans when we consume animal products.

To look more closely at the issue of drug resistance, Pew analyzed the FDA’s latest results from its National Antimocrobial Resistance Monitoring System. The sobering stats, as reported by Mother Jones,include the fact that nearly three-quarters of the salmonella found on retail chicken breasts were resistant to at least one antibiotic (about 12 percent of retail chicken breast and ground turkey samples were contaminated with salmonella). Of the salmonella bacteria discovered on ground turkey, about 78 percent were resistant to at least one antibiotic and — perhaps most strikingly — half the bacteria were resistant to three or more. These figures represent an increase in bacterial resistance compared to 2010.

Last year, the FDA proposed a set of voluntary guidelines encouraging the meat industry to cut back on antibiotics. But Pew’s research reveals the industry has been slow to take heed. It’s clear that more stringent requirements are necessary, lest “drug-resistant bacteria” become a new staple at the dinner table.

Are you concerned about antibiotic resistance and the meat industry? Share in the comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @lauranewc.