Overuse of antibiotics in animals puts public health at risk

Approximately three-quarters of the world’s antibiotics are used in animals, most of which are living in miserable and unsanitary conditions on factory farms.

It is estimated that 131,000 tonnes of these antibiotics are used on stressed farm animals to cover up for not providing them with sufficient nutrition, proper care, and space to move around – which are basic needs of every living being.

Header image: KOOKLE/Shutterstock.

Chicken farm and a worker
Superbugs in supermarket meat

Such excessive use of antibiotics on factory farms is contributing to the rise of superbugs. Superbugs are bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics used to treat them. It is predicted that by 2050, superbugs will be responsible for more than 10 million deaths a year.

With your support, we’re calling for Governments to ban the use of antibiotics for the routine prevention of disease. Antibiotics should be reserved for use when there is a recognised illness in an animal or in a group of animals.


Chicken farm and a worker

Superbugs can emerge from excessive use of antibiotics in animals

Image credit: iStock / roibu

Animals stuck on factory farms around the world are often kept in poor, low welfare conditions. They are typically overcrowded, with no space to display their normal behaviours. As a result, these stressed animals are more likely to fall ill. In order to prevent sickness in these poor conditions, antibiotics are often used preventatively to reduce disease risk.

Such overuse can contribute to the rapid rise and spread of bacteria that are resistant to medicines used to fight infections. These resistant bacteria or ‘superbugs’ are carried off farms via water, air, workers, insects, wildlife, and meat, where they may eventually reach humans. Superbugs are bacteria that are resistant to the medicines that cure life-threatening illnesses.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), superbugs were responsible for 1.27 million deaths in 2019 due to antibiotics no longer being effective.

The low-welfare conditions that contribute to the rise to superbugs can also cause diseases like bird flu or swine flu to emerge from factory farms and transfer to humans. Keeping large numbers of genetically similar animals in tightly packed conditions can increase the risk of disease spread and mutation. One day this could even lead to the next global pandemic.

This is why the transition to eating less meat and a high-welfare global food system is vital, and putting an end to low-welfare factory farms is needed.

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Cattle in feedlots
A farm worker clips the teeth of a piglet 72 hours after he was born - World Animal Protection - Raise Pigs Right

Supermarket meats

Superbugs in supermarket meat

Alarming proportion of superbugs found in supermarkets

Our Antimicrobial Resistance in Australian Supermarket Meats report by Monash University raised serious questions about antimicrobial resistant bacteria in the food chain.

It shined a light on an alarming proportion of antimicrobial-resistant (AMR) bacteria in beef and salmon bought from popular supermarkets Coles, Woolworths and ALDI stores in Melbourne.

From the bacteria that was detected, 53% had acquired resistance to antibiotics, including antibiotics used to treat human infections, which is shockingly almost as high as the proportion of AMR bacteria found in wastewater (58%).

The rise of superbugs presents one of the biggest human health challenges around the world. WHO estimates that they are responsible for a staggering 1.27 million human deaths a year, a figure that is projected to rise to 10 million by 2050.

Without effective antibiotics, common infections could prove deadly, and we would be sent back to the era before modern medicine once again. Lifesaving procedures and treatments like chemotherapy, heart bypass surgery, hip and joint replacements, organ transplants, dialysis, or caesarean delivery would be extremely risky or impossible.