The link between antibiotic resistance and raising animals for food

“WHO warns that pipeline for new antibiotics is running dry,” reported the New York Times in 2020.

“Never has the threat of antimicrobial resistance been more immediate and the need for solutions more urgent,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, in summing up the WHO report that led to the Times headline.

Each year, at least 2.8 million U.S. residents get an antibiotic-resistant infection, and more than 35,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What makes bacteria resistant to antibiotics?

“It’s just a matter of evolution,” says Lance Price, professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University.

“Every now and then, a bacteria picks up a mutation or a gene from another bacteria that makes it resistant to some antibiotic. If that antibiotic is present, then the susceptible bacteria are going to die off and the resistant ones are going to multiply.”

And bacteria multiply fast.

“You can go from a single drug-resistant E. coli to more than a billion in 24 hours,” says Price.

What does that have to do with food?

Two-thirds of the 20 million pounds of medically important antibiotics sold every year in the United States are used in livestock (mostly cattle and pigs), according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The antibiotics are being used to prevent or treat diseases that occur in part because we raise animals in concentrated animal feeding operations,” explains Price.

“When I see these operations, I don’t see factories making meat. I see factories making trillions and trillions of drug-resistant bacteria.”

And some of those drug-resistant bacteria end up in people. “We’re barreling toward a time when our antibiotics no longer work,” says Price.

Want more reasons to fill your plate with mostly plants?

A plant-heavy diet can also help your heart, sustain your brain, cut your risk of cancer, and protect the planet.

Photo: deyana/