Farmers Pay Ridiculously Little for Animal Antibiotics

It's bad enough that most antibiotics sold in the U.S. are fed to animals, but what's worse is that they come at such a cheap price.

January 2, 2014


It's a New Year and the Food and Drug Administration has politely asked factory farms to voluntarily stop using antibiotics in animals to promote growth.


Aside from being a toothless rule, it's been widely acknowledged among groups like the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future that farmers will simply start saying they're using the drugs to prevent disease rather than promote growth, and antibiotic use will continue unabated.  After all, in poultry production, antibiotics added to feed can almost double the weight of a bird, making them easy tools for boosting profits.

If we want to break the addiction to antibiotics in America's agriculture industry, we've got to raise the ridiculously low price, argues an editorial just published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Farmers pay, on average, around $25 for a kilogram of antibiotics that are fed to pigs, chickens, cattle, and fish and, though much less commonly, even sprayed on tomatoes, peppers, and fruit trees to control bacterial plant diseases. That works out to about 3 cents per gram. Yet, when you go to fill a prescription for an antibiotic at your local pharmacy, you can expect to pay $1 per gram—over 3,000 percent more than what farmers pay.

That disturbing discrepancy in price can be owed in part to the fact that drugs for humans have to meet much tighter quality-control standards, says Aidan Hollis, PhD, a professor of economics at Canada's University of Calgary and the editorial's author, but "it's clear antibiotics are being abused, in humans as well as agriculture. The problem of how to reduce their is challenging." And bans, which have been tried in the European Union, won't work, he argues, as long as China—which hasn't banned any antibiotics—continues to churn out more animals than any other country in the world.

He's proposing a user fee that would increase the price farmers pay to something like $100 a kilogram. "The government would ideally set the user fee to make it unattractive to use antibiotics for growth promotion and less attractive for other uses as well," he says. The money could even be reinvested on farms, for instance, being given to farmers who are willing to commit to cleaning up their animals' environments. Research on pig farms has shown that using antibiotics is actually less productive than housing animals in cleaner environments, in which the animals grow faster.

"Most of the resistance to antibiotics really does come from human abuse," he says, "but nevertheless, the fact that we're dumping so many antibiotics into the environment is likely to lead to other resistance problems"—a problem that both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have called a public-health nightmare.

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