McDonald’s, Walmart, Taco Bell And More Fueling Livestock Antibiotic Resistance Crisis

Data released Monday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reveal a significant increase in the sales of medically important antibiotics for use in the production of chicken, beef and pork for human consumption. The revelation comes seven years after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released its National Action Plan for combating antimicrobial resistance, and two years after the plan was updated.

The FDA report also follows the release of a joint investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and The Guardian revealing that several major retailers and restaurant chains — including McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Walmart — are sourcing beef that originates from farms using a specific category of antibiotics linked to impacts on human health and the spread of “superbugs.”

The FDA report revealed that, despite an overall 1% decrease in antibiotic sales to the livestock industry in 2021 as compared to 2020, there were increases in antibiotic sales for use in the production of chicken (12%), pork (3%) and beef (1%). Coupled with data showing that in 2021, chicken and pork production actually decreased compared to 2020, the results show “more antibiotics were sold for use in fewer animals,” according to Civil Eats and data from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In interviews with The Defender, a number of scientists, doctors and nonprofit advocacy groups that monitor the use of antibiotics in cattle and livestock commented on the FDA and TBIJ reports and the implications for human health of allowing the widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. According to TBIJ’s report, the spread of drug-resistant bacteria in the environment represents a “huge public health challenge,” yet “many U.S. cattle farmers still routinely use antibiotics” on their food animals, “often for months on end.”

HP-CIAs ‘widespread’ in U.S. beef supply chains, according to TBIJ investigation” The drugs have historically been used in industrial farming to prevent diseases from spreading. But their use — and overuse — enables bacteria to develop resistance, meaning the drugs stop working.” TBIJ’s investigation found that “residues of numerous HP-CIAs and other antibiotics were present in many of the US’s beef supply chains between 2017 and 2022,” according to tests by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

All had at least one HP-CIA in use on farms supplying their abattoirs. Several were found to have as many as seven separate HP-CIAs in use. Cattle farms selling to JBS, which has sold beef to Wendy’s, Walmart and Taco Bell, were found to have used seven HP-CIAs. Farms serving Green Bay Dressed Beef, which has supplied the Kroger supermarket chain, also had seven in use. Cattle suppliers to Cargill, which sells beef to McDonald’s, were found to have at least five HP-CIAs in use.

Amos told The Defender that the “routine antibiotic use in industrial farming systems — often to animals who are not sick — maximizes production of meat, milk or eggs by improving feed efficiency and suppressing diseases that would otherwise spread like wildfire in the confined, unsanitary, and stressful conditions typical of intensive livestock operations. The greatest volume of HP-CIAs, like most medically important antibiotics, are used in cattle and pigs.” according to Steven Roach, head of Keep Antibiotics Working.

Much of the use in cattle is to prevent liver abscesses in feedlot cattle caused by inappropriate high energy diets,” he said, adding: “Most of the [usage] in cattle is to prevent respiratory disease caused by moving calves off pasture and shipping them to feedlots, which makes them susceptible to respiratory disease. In pigs, a lot of the use is to prevent diarrhea and respiratory disease caused by unhealthy conditions in pig farms.”